British begin patrol as Italians take 'fort'
By Richard S. Ehrlich
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
British troops leading international security forces handed over charge of the force's Kabul headquarters to Italian troops yesterday and set out to patrol the streets.
As the British troops yanked out their telecommunications equipment, packed up their heavy machine guns and headed out in convoys to their new base, the Italian troops equipped with mint-condition assault rifles, tight-fitting camouflage uniforms and bottled water from home took up position as the new guards at the headquarters of the international force, known as the "fort."
Meanwhile, the major countries participating in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have divided up Kabul and the surrounding areas for patrolling.
"The city gets carved up," a British soldier said. "The French have the north, the Germans have the center and the British have the south."
The British troops will beef up their patrols in the southern, rubble-strewn section of Kabul from their new base, the Afghan army's training academy.
Royal Engineers spent the past few days cleaning out human excrement, unexploded ordnance and other debris from the academy.
If Kabul is hit by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network or Afghan Taliban die-hards, ISAF will help U.S.-backed Afghan forces retaliate.
ISAF forces, however, are still vulnerable because their supply lines span the globe.
"The overwhelming majority of the equipment that we need to sustain the operation...is currently being flown in" from Britain, said British Lt. Col. Richard Eaton, spokesman for the ISAF commander.
"The air bridge is long and...thin, so it has been taking a while for us to build up the resources," he said. Vehicles are always at a premium, he said.
ISAF is made up of troops from nearly a dozen nations, here to help the interim government, headed by Hamid Karzai, in maintaining security in Kabul.
The British have nearly 1,000 troops on the ground.
An initial group of 129 Italians recently arrived to augment ISAF, which also includes 359 French, 241 German, 34 Dutch, 15 Finnish, 15 Norwegian, 11 Danish, five Swedish and four Austrian troops already on the ground.
At least 36 U.S. "liaison and communications" officers are also based at the ISAF headquarters.
The rooftop of the headquarters, where the troops stand guard, is studded with small, green satellite dishes and overlooks upper-class residential streets from where turbaned men, burka-covered women and curious children gaze up at the guards.
Yesterday, the troops clustered according to nationality amid hanging laundry, a water tower and more than a dozen rooms that faced the inner, dirt-covered square of the headquarters.
British soldiers enjoyed their last hours at the ISAF headquarters by sunning themselves, playing cards and listening to rock 'n' roll.
"We are not sunbathing, we are airing out our bodies," joked Cpl. Iain Marshal.
The headquarters compound, on a main street in central Kabul, is a former sports club for Afghan military officers that still contains "remainders of what were formerly gymnasiums," Col. Eaton said.
Inside the compound grounds, there is also an aging mansion and another building where senior ISAF officers live and work.
In front of the two buildings, a small tent village sprawls, manned by international troops.
The 36 U.S. troops operate out of a few tents.
Hundreds of other U.S. troops are stationed in Bagram Air Base, 42 miles north of Kabul.
ISAF so far is confined to the area in and around the Afghan capital but may eventually patrol other cities.
"Our area of operations stretches in a goose egg [shape] from Kabul in the south to Bagram in the north," Lt.-Col. Eaton said.
He said the atmosphere around Kabul is calm, but added, "There may well be remnants of al Qaeda and Taliban organizations who object to the ISAF forces being here."