NATO peacekeeping mission to cover all Afghanistan by August

NATO's chief operational commander said Friday he hopes the alliance's peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan will be able to complete its expansion to cover the whole of the country by the end of August, several months before previous expectations.

U.S. Gen. James L. Jones said the force could then total as many as 25,000, up from the current 8,400.

Many of the additional troops will be Americans who are already serving in restive eastern Afghanistan as part of the U.S.-led counterterrorism mission but will switch to a NATO command under a British general.

"It's better to do it sooner than later," Jones told reporters at NATO's military headquarters in southern Belgium.

NATO's mission has been limited to the capital, Kabul, and the relatively peaceful northern and western regions. The alliance is due to expand into the more dangerous southern sector by the end of July with 9,000 extra troops mostly from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands.

Jones said the next stage, taking the NATO's International Security Assistance Force into the east along the mountainous Pakistani border regions, could be completed within a month, since it does not involve mustering additional troops by simply a "re-badging" of U.S. troops already there.

The United States has about 16,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.

The vast majority operate outside NATO's peacekeeping mission in a separate, U.S.-led operation focused on the hunt for remnants of the ousted Taliban regime and their al-Qaida allies. NATO officials said 6,000-10,000 of the U.S. troops will likely switch to the alliance's mission, while the rest will continue the counterterrorism operation, reports the AP.


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