British forces will lead an initial peacekeeping force in Afghanistan in an arrangement worked out over the weekend with the White House, diplomats said Monday.
Pending the expected approval of the U.N. Security Council, the peacekeepers could begin arriving in Kabul early next week, the diplomats said.
The United States, concerned that foreign forces could interfere with the American military campaign against the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, had resisted pressure from European allies and U.N. personnel for an early deployment of peacekeepers in Afghanistan.
But over the weekend, the Bush administration decided to back a proposal by British Prime Minister Tony Blair for a British-led force in and around Kabul, the Afghan capital, the diplomats said.
In London, a senior government official confirmed that Britain would be willing to lead the peacekeeping force but said there is no final agreement to do so yet.
"We just want to get all of the . . . details tied down," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We want to make sure everyone understands the role, the makeup, the time scale."
Britain has dispatched troops to peacekeeping missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina; Kosovo, Yugoslavia; Sierra Leone; and Cyprus. "We have experience, logistical and technical experience, and we can get our troops mobilized quickly," the official said.
The British media have reported that the force could total about 3,000 troops, but the official said no number had been determined.
Formal announcement of the proposal is expected when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visits London today, the diplomats at the U.N. said.
Germany has offered troops for the effort, Powell said Monday in Berlin after talks with German Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder. Other countries that are expected to contribute are Turkey, Jordan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, France, Italy and the Netherlands.
The United States, which has said it does not plan to join a peacekeeping force, was being urged by some European nations this week to provide at least some troops to underscore U.S. support for the deployment.
The United Nations had been pushing for the introduction of peacekeepers into Kabul before Dec. 22, when Afghanistan's new interim government is scheduled to take power. The U.N.'s humanitarian agencies are also seeking a foreign troop presence to safeguard the delivery of food, medicine and other emergency supplies through now-lawless expanses of the Afghan countryside.
The Security Council met in a closed session Monday to discuss the composition and mandate of the peacekeeping force, and a resolution formally endorsing the peacekeeping initiative is expected by the end of the week. Although the peacekeepers will, in Powell's words, be a "coalition of the willing," without formal U.N. affiliation, the council's blessing will give the force international legal standing.
The council is also expected to authorize U.N. technical support for Afghan police, judicial training and related law and order endeavors.
Last week, the council endorsed the U.N.-brokered plan for a political transition in Afghanistan but was unable to reach a consensus on peacekeeping forces.
Diplomats who participated in the proceedings said some council members are pressing to impose a six-month deadline for the peacekeeping effort in hopes of encouraging the rapid creation of a new pan-tribal Afghan security force.
"We need to make it clear to the Afghans and others that we aren't going to stay forever," said one diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But many say they doubt that a coherent Afghan military force could be organized in half a year.
Asked how long Britain would be willing to stay in Afghanistan, the senior British official said "however long it takes to allow the interim administration to get to the point of policing themselves. . . . The whole point of peacekeeping is to keep the momentum going."
In its formative meeting in Germany last week, the new government coalition heeded the urging of U.N. mediators and explicitly invited foreign peacekeepers to Kabul for a transitional period. The Bush administration, eager to avoid offending Afghan and Arab sensibilities, had originally favored a largely Muslim peacekeeping force, and Turkey volunteered to provide field command and 3,000 troops.
But Northern Alliance officials and other Afghan leaders at the meeting outside Bonn told U.N. officials they did not particularly care if the foreign forces were all-Muslim, half-Muslim or non-Muslim, officials here said.
Some Afghans were said to be wary of Turkey's seeming eagerness to lead such a force, given the long history of Ottoman rule in the region. British leadership was apparently more acceptable to the Afghans, notwithstanding the history of British imperial adventures in their country.
The Security Council unanimously agreed on one prohibition: No nations bordering Afghanistan may participate in peacekeeping there, a formula that preserves China's desired distance from the conflict while precluding any future participation by Iran or Pakistan.
Russia, a near neighbor with its own tragic history in Afghanistan, also ruled itself out, diplomats said. "It was their own decision, and it was a wise decision," an official from another council delegation said.
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Times staff writers Marjorie Miller in London and Robin Wright in Berlin contributed to this report.