Turkish troops arrived in Kabul on Thursday to take over the helm of a multinational peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, as delegates from a Loya Jirga or Grand Assembly packed up and headed for home.
Britain handed over control of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the Turkish military in a colorful ceremony on a soccer pitch in the capital, at a crucial time in the war-battered country’s history.
The previous night, the Loya Jirga had disbanded after nine days of grueling debate aimed at charting a new political future for Afghanistan after 23 years of war.
Hamid Karzai was inaugurated at the Loya Jirga as president and won approval for members of a new cabinet. They will lead the country towards elections in 18 months.
But signs of political tension emerged within hours as powerful Tajik leader Yunis Qanuni was reported to be unhappy with his demotion from interior minister to education minister, and supporters demonstrated outside his ministry.
Karzai had attempted a delicate balancing act in drawing up his cabinet, giving the interior ministry to a member of his own Pashtun ethnic group, to try and calm Pashtun fears of Tajik domination.
But two key ministries — defence and foreign affairs — were retained by leading members of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, which helped topple the Taliban last year with American help, and whose soldiers and police still control the capital.
On Thursday, Karzai paid glowing tribute to the work of ISAF, which he said had succeeded in keeping the peace in Kabul and ensuring the success of the Loya Jirga.
“The Afghan people feel secure with them,” Karzai told dignitaries, praising outgoing British Major General John McColl.
“It is self-explanatory to the world and to us how important, how good, the work of ISAF has been and how vital the leadership of ISAF has been. That is General McColl,” he said.
“You deserve a lot. You could have been the president of this country for all the good work you have done,” he added. McColl said he was happy Britain appeared to have laid to rest the ghosts of a series of disastrous attempts to subdue the Afghan people in the 19th century.
“Afghanistan has hosted British generals in previous centuries on at least three occasions,” McColl said.
“Generally things haven’t gone too well for my predecessors. It has been an honor for the United Kingdom to lead ISAF for the last six months and I am delighted things seem to have gone a little better this time.”
Karzai arrived on the yellowing pitch at ISAF headquarters in a black Mercedes and inspected a guard of honor. National anthems were played at the end of the ceremony.
McColl, of the 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment, handed the ISAF command to Turkish Major-General Hilmi Akin Zorlu.
Turkey is taking command of the 4,650-strong ISAF for six months. It is contributing 1,400 personnel, while the British presence will fall from nearly 1,500 to a few hundred.
While ISAF conducts peacekeeping operations in Kabul, U.S. and British forces continue to sweep outlying areas for remaining Taliban forces and members of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.
Elsewhere in Kabul, sweaty and exhausted delegates from the Loya Jirga left for home, clutching bundles, rugs and prayer mats under their arms and holding bottles of water in the hot sun.
Many were unhappy about what they called poor organization and an undemocratic climate at the traditional Loya Jirga as well as the make-up of the new cabinet.
“Everything was decided by the government and imposed on us. It was democracy only in name. It was a show of democracy,” said delegate Khajeh Shirpadeshah, weighed down by belongings and fumbling his prayer beads.
Rather than submit his carefully crafted cabinet to debate, Karzai asked the assembly to approve it in a quick show of hands.