NATO foreign ministers approved plans Thursday to send up to 6,000 troops into southern Afghanistan, a major expansion of the alliance's peacekeeping mission into some of the most dangerous parts of the country.
"They will bring peace to more people in Afghanistan," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer assures. "They will help ensure that terrorism cannot take hold again of this country and use it as a base from which to threaten the world."
NATO's expansion should allow the United States to scale back its about 18,000-strong military presence almost five years after it invaded the country following the Sept. 11 attacks. The Pentagon, however, has yet to say how many troops it will withdraw.
The plans give the NATO peacekeepers a stronger self-defense mandate, guarantee support from U.S. combat troops if they face a serious attack and set out rules for handling detainees - all issues which have concerned some European allies mulling participation in the expanded force.
Ministers also agreed to a request from Afghan President Hamid Karzai to develop increased support in developing his country's fledgling security forces.
De Hoop Scheffer appealed for the European Union, United Nations and the G-8 group of economic powers to help by doing more to help rebuild the country's economy.
The expansion of the Afghan mission, expected to start around May, will increase NATO's peacekeeping mission to about 16,000 and make it responsible for security in three-quarters of the country. The separate U.S.-led combat force will be responsible for the eastern sector where Taliban holdouts have been most active.
NATO's plan also sets out closer cooperation with the U.S.-led mission by appointing an officer - probably an American general - who will serve jointly as the peacekeepers' deputy commander for security and chief of combat missions for the U.S. force.
NATO military officials insist the force will have a tough mandate to deal with threats, according to the AP.