Officials at NATO headquarters in Brussels say the alliance will move only gradually to expand its peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, despite receiving authorization from the U.N. Security Council this week to extend its reach beyond the capital, Kabul.
NATO is still waiting for its military planners to make the necessary preparations for expanding the alliance's presence in Afghanistan. There are now more than 5,000 NATO peacekeepers there, but they have been restricted to the capital and its immediate surroundings.
At the request of the Afghan government and non-governmental organizations working in the country, NATO has agreed to expand its mission, and it now has the Security Council's approval to do so.
Germany has offered to send up to 450 troops to the northern town of Kunduz as members of a so-called provincial reconstruction team, which will both bolster security and engage in aid activities. But the move still has to be approved by the German Parliament, and that is not expected until the end of the month.
The main question is how soon and how widely additional NATO forces will be deployed to areas of Afghanistan where the Kabul government has had difficulty in asserting its authority because of renewed attacks by Taleban forces, defiance by provincial warlords, and general lawlessness.
Analyst Mark Joyce, at London's Royal United Services Institute, says nobody knows the answer.
"The real question - that is, where are the extra troops that are needed to make real changes in the security situation there - still has not been answered," he said. "Most estimates suggest that around 10,000 extra troops are going to be needed. Germany has offered 450. Nobody has answered where the rest are going to come from."
NATO planners are considering ways to eventually deploy peacekeepers to as many as eight provincial cities in Afghanistan, and NATO Secretary General George Robertson is asking for firm commitments from alliance members. NATO officials say Italy, Norway, the Netherlands and Portugal are thinking about sending troops to the war-torn country.
The problem, alliance officials say, is that NATO armies are overstretched because of other peacekeeping commitments in such places as Iraq, the Balkans and Africa. And, they add, most NATO members are laboring under severe budget constraints.
NATO took command of what is called the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan two months ago, marking its first mission outside its traditional Euro-Atlantic area. A separate U.S. force in Afghanistan searching for remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida operates independently of NATO.
Although Mr. Robertson wants NATO troops in the Afghan provinces before the winter sets in, diplomats at the alliance's headquarters say it could be several months before any major deployment beyond Kabul is possible.
Independent analysts like Mr. Joyce say that until the additional NATO troops are deployed, there is not likely to be substantial improvement of the security situation in Afghanistan.