Turkish Troops Take Charge in Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member, took command Thursday of the 19-nation international peacekeeping force guarding the Afghan capital, renewing a military association that dates back 80 years

Turkish General Hilmi Akin Zorlu accepted command of the more than 4,000-strong international force from Britain, which is expected to announce plans this week to scale back its forces from Afghanistan.

"Turkey has willingly agreed to take over leadership with the aim of contributing to the peace and security that the Afghan people have long deserved," General Hilmi said at a handover ceremony in Kabul. Dignitaries including Afghan President Hamid Karzai attended the ceremony. Karzai welcomed the new commander, saying Afghanistan and Turkey had a long history of friendship and that "the Afghan people feel secure" with the Turks.

The ceremony took place the day after Karzai was sworn in as head of a new government, which will rule this country until new elections in 18 months.

During his remarks, Karzai praised General John McColl, the British commander of the International Security Assistance Forces, as the peacekeepers are formally known. He joked that McColl was so popular that he "could have been president of this country."

With the takeover, the size of the Turkish contingent in Afghanistan will rise to 1,400 by the end of the month, making it the largest group in the international force. Germany has the second largest at 1,200 troops. Turkey is expected to have the command for a six-month term that could be extended.

Turkey has had close ties with Afghanistan since King Amanullah invited in the Turks during the 1920s to help his army, and Washington is keen to promote majority-Muslim Turkey as a democratic role model for Afghanistan.

The United States is also eager to show that its war against terrorism has Muslim allies and is not a struggle between the West and Islam. "The United States wanted a Muslim country and Turkey has close relations with Afghanistan," said Mehmet Sayfettinerol of the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies in Ankara, Turkey.