KABUL, Afghanistan – A convoy of 80 British Royal Marines entered the Afghan capital on Friday, the first contingent of multinational peacekeepers launching a six-month mission to protect the new interim government.
The line of military vehicles under a helicopter escort arrived in Kabul from Bagram air base, 40 miles to the north.
The British troops were escorting Afghan dignitaries who had flown into Bagram from abroad for the installation Saturday of interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun tribal leader from southern Afghanistan, and his Cabinet.
The trucks traveled a road heavily mined on either side from decades of war and between craters blasted out by U.S. warplanes.
The British soldiers were the vanguard of a force that will grow to 3,000 to 5,000 assigned to ensure the safety of the interim cabinet until an Afghan council determines a more permanent government.
"We are very happy that they are coming because this is the only guarantee that we will have peace," said a Kabul baker, Mohammed Sadar.
But many Afghans appeared unwilling to accept a long-term international presence in their capital.
"They should leave Afghanistan when we are sure of peace," said Ghulam Dastigir Khan. "We don't want them to stay forever. We are Muslims. They are not," said Khan, a cigarette vendor who hopes the soldiers will boost his current income of about a dollar a day.
While the peacekeepers headed toward Kabul, Karzai met senior ministers of his incoming Cabinet, U.N. officials and American diplomats at the presidential palace. Black limousines with tinted windows and bulletproof vehicles waited outside.
The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Thursday to approve a peace force authorized to use military force if necessary to protect themselves and the new government.
But not all Afghans were happy with its robust mandate.
Mohammed Fahim, the defense minister in Karzai's cabinet, said Thursday only 1,000 men would be permitted in Kabul on "symbolic" peacekeeping duties, while the rest should remain in reserve in Bagram.
The multinational troops would not be empowered to disarm belligerents, interfere in Afghan affairs or use force, he told The Associated Press.
"They are here because they want to be. But their presence is as a symbol," Fahim said. "The security is the responsibility of Afghans."
Other officials of the new government -- including Karzai -- have welcomed the peacekeeping force, accepting that its role is more than symbolic, and that it will enforce security in the capital.
Fahim said an armed Afghan police force would be in Kabul working with the peacekeepers, adding that "the peacekeepers can patrol if they want to."