BRUSSELS, April 16: Nato agreed on Wednesday to take over command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan this summer, an unprecedented step for the alliance.

Officials said the move, the first “out of area” Nato mission, marked the start of a new era for an alliance born during the Cold War.

“It is a significant step forward for Nato. It is the first out of Europe operation in our history,” said one diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

ISAF, which operates under a United Nations mandate, has patrolled Kabul and its environs since its creation in December 2001 following the fall of the Taliban militia.

Nato spokesman Yves Brodeur said that, although its mission will not formally become a Nato operation, the ISAF commander will be chosen by Nato’s top military commander.

“Strategic coordination, command and control will be exercised by Nato through SHAPE (the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe),” he said.

“Neither ISAF or the mission will change,” he said. “What is going to change is the means by which the international community meets its commitment (in Afghanistan).”

ISAF currently comprises some 4,600 troops from nearly 30 countries, including around 2,500 German and 600 Dutch soldiers and assists the Afghan authorities in securing Kabul.

Berlin has urged Nato to take over leadership of ISAF when Germany’s mandate to command the force ends in August.

But other countries, including France and Belgium, have expressed reservations.

While French officials welcomed the move, one insisted: “We are not planting the Nato flag in Afghanistan,” adding that Nato was anxious “to avoid changing the perception in Kabul of what ISAF is.”

“What we don’t want to do, is to give the impression that Nato is going to lead the mission. It is first of all an ISAF mission under the aegis of the UN. All we are doing is providing the structure,” a Nato source added.

Nato chief George Roberton informed UN Secretary General Kofi Annan of the alliance decision at the start of the week, Brodeur said.

The Nato decision was taken at the request of Germany, the Netherlands and Canada, who have played key roles in ISAF. The exact date of the handover remains to be decided, diplomats said.

Nato is currently undergoing a radical transformation, from a Cold War-era alliance whose actions have been geographically limited to a post-September 11 force focussed on threats worldwide.

At a landmark summit in Prague last year it agreed to expand to take in seven former Communist countries, while also approving the creation of a rapid Response Force (NRF) ready for combat missions anywhere around the globe.

Wednesday’s decision is the first time since Nato’s creation in 1949 that it has agreed to take command of a mission outside the North Atlantic area.

“This decision puts to rest the debate about Nato’s relevance,” said one diplomat.

Nato, which already provides logistical support to ISAF, asked its military experts on April 2 to study how the alliance could “maximise” the alliance’s role in Afghanistan.

Security remains a major concern for the government of President Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan struggles to overcome decades of conflict and warlordism.—AFP

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