Afghans welcome NATO expansion

Afghanistan welcomed NATO's decision to expand its peacekeeping mission on Friday, saying it would boost security, while the Taliban said more alliance troops would only increase opportunities for guerillas to attack them. NATO foreign ministers approved mission rules on Thursday for an expanded Afghan peacekeeping force next year, which Washington hopes will allow it to cut U.S. troop levels in the country.

The agreement leaves the most dangerous counter-insurgency work in the hands of the 20,000-strong U.S.-led force but gives NATO more scope to help Afghan forces with training and other tasks such as disarming illegal armed groups. "The government welcomes this decision," said Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi. NATO wants to raise its 9,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to about 15,000 from early next year. It will spread its bases in the north and west, and the capital, Kabul, to the more volatile south, a base for many insurgents.

Britain, Canada and the Netherlands are earmarked to lead the expansion into the south but NATO still needs further troop contributions before it can go ahead early next year.

U.S. proposals last year for NATO to take overall command of foreign military operations in Afghanistan were rejected by European allies, including France and Germany, who insisted that the alliance should stay clear of counter-insurgency operations.

Under the rules agreed by the ministers in Brussels, the NATO-led ISAF will be operating in three-quarters of the country where it will continue to focus on peacekeeping and security.

"When the expansion happens, NATO will focus on security matters and this will allow the U.S. army to better concentrate on counter-insurgency activities," Azimi said. A Taliban commander said an increase in foreign troops would make no difference to the war against such forces, which he said would continue until Afghanistan gained its independence, reports the Reuters. I.L.

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