Afghanistan Welcomes Vote for More Peacekeeping Troops

Afghan officials on Tuesday hailed a United Nations vote that grants long-awaited approval for the expansion of an international peacekeeping force beyond the limits of the capital, saying it was crucial to the nation's future as it tries to rein in powerful warlords.

The 15-member U.N. Security Council (searchvoted unanimously late Monday to give the go-ahead for the 5,500-strong International Security Assistance Force (searchto fan out to key cities in some of Afghanistan's most lawless provinces, where feuding warlords hold sway and Taliban rebels have been engaging in an ever-fiercer insurgency against the government.

The peacekeeping force, known as ISAF, is under NATO (searchcommand, with Germany and Canada taking the lead role in terms of troop numbers.

"The news coming out of the Security Council is very much welcomed by the Afghan government and the Afghan people," Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad told The Associated Press. "We have been asking for some sort of expansion of ISAF for a long time and see it as an important step as we embark on a new phase of the political process and accelerated activities in the reconstruction field."

Afghanistan is moving toward its first national elections in years, with the vote scheduled for June 2004. Officials acknowledge that improving security nationwide is critical if the vote is to succeed.

Still, the speed and scope of the ISAF expansion was unclear, and there has not been any official word on how many additional troops might be involved. Very few countries have come forward to offer troops for the expansion.

Germany's U.N. ambassador, Gunter Pleuger, said his country will seek parliamentary approval for an expanded force of between 230-450 German troops to deploy in the northern city of Kunduz. The area is relatively peaceful compared to areas in the south and east of Afghanistan, where insurgents have targeted aid workers, Afghan officials and soldiers, and U.S. troops.

Pleuger said two weeks ago the expanded force being envisioned would have international troops deployed to eight urban "islands" across the country including Herat in the west, Kandahar in the south and Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif in the north.

Provincial officials were quick to lobby for an ISAF presence in their own regions.

Abdul Hamid Balkhi, the intelligence chief in Kunduz, said the people of his area had been "desperately waiting for this decision."

"We are ready to cooperate with our German brothers," he told AP by satellite phone.

Sadokhan Ambarkhil, the deputy governor of southeastern Paktika province, said his area was in more desperate need than those in Kunduz.

"It is good that they are going to Kunduz, but we urgently need them here in Paktika," he said. "The fire is raging more in the homes of the Paktika people than it is in Kunduz, and Al Qaeda and Taliban are more active here. We need them as soon as possible."

Paktika has been the scene of near-daily Taliban attacks, and a U.S. soldier was killed in the province in late September. The area borders Pakistan, and Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are believed to be hiding out in the mountain area that straddles the countries.