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Policing partnership takes initial steps in Kabul

SHARE Policing partnership takes initial steps in Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan — Together they marched up a street of crumbling buildings and curious faces. One was Afghan, a police officer sporting a rocket launcher and a smile. The other, toting a huge automatic weapon, was a soldier from a world away.

But in a city where guns usually mean trouble, no one watching the official launch of joint British-Afghan policing patrols on Thursday seemed frightened — not the little girl in the red woolen hat peeking out from behind a metal door, not the old man with one leg and one crutch. Certainly not 14-year-old Amil Alihurush.

"I like the England people," he said. "They are peaceful."

As British forces, the vanguard of an international peacekeeping operation, begin to join newly deputized Afghan police on the streets of post-Taliban Kabul, many hope safety is finally on the upswing.

However, "these people have never seen soldiers carrying weapons who are a force for good," said Lt. Col. James Bashall, commanding officer of the British Army's Second Battalion Parachute Regiment.

He joined his Afghan counterparts in the ramshackle Karte Char section of southwest Kabul to formally kick off joint patrols of the city, part of an agreement struck late last year in Germany on efforts to get Afghanistan back on its feet.

According to the United Nations, 784 peacekeeping troops, many from Britain, have deployed in Afghanistan in recent weeks, and 600 more are expected next week.

They are authorized to use force and also aim to teach their Afghan counterparts to keep the country secure.

"We will search every area together. We are ready," said Col. Dastagil Rostumyar, Kabul's security chief. "We will try to make a comfortable situation for people. Calm helps cause progress in a country."

Pairs of Britons and Afghans walked past wrecked buildings, past a hut selling bicycle tires, past a boarded-up pharmacy. Kids ran alongside, shooed to the sidewalk by their elders. Old men stood and watched.

At a major market intersection, a crowd surged toward the patrols, smiling and touching uniforms. Men came up and tossed glitter from small plastic bags onto Brits and Afghans alike.

To hear some of the peacekeepers in Karte Char tell it, this happens whenever they leave base.

"They swamp us if we stop. Our vehicle is basically surrounded. They just want to talk," said Cpl. Iain Marshall, 25, of London, who has previously done missions in Sierra Leone and Macedonia.

"We weren't expecting as friendly a welcome here," Marshall said. "Everyone's friendly — for now, anyway."

Few expect it all to be this easy.

Thursday's inaugural patrol was held in a relatively safe part of town. Guns remain endemic on Kabul's streets, and a 72-hour disarmament ultimatum by Hamid Karzai's interim government was ticking away even as the glitter flew. The main threats, according to Bashall, are mines and hidden Taliban stragglers.

As the regular foot patrols began, the United Nations expressed optimism. Ahmed Fawzi, spokesman for the special U.N. envoy on Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, said he was confident the country's fledgling police corps could, with peacekeepers' help, effectively maintain security in the capital.

"They're very well trained and serious about their duties," Fawzi said. "I've seen them patrolling the streets. They look pretty determined."

The peacekeepers, known as the International Security Assistance Forces, have split Kabul into patrol areas that are roughly parallel to police districts — one of many efforts they say will encourage communication between soldiers and rookie police. A soccer game between the two groups is planned, as are community projects.

"We will see if we can't do some rebuilding, get power going, help schools," Bashall said. "It's a subtle and slow process. It's something the British army is very good at."

A tiny 14-year-old boy watching the events agreed. Bahman Alipoor was thrilled to practice his English and tell anyone who passed that he has a grandmother in Chicago. To Bahman, the soldiers walking down the streets of his city herald happier days.

"In our country, peace is coming," he said. "I see them, and I see maybe we are finished with the war."