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NATO Agrees to Expand Mission in Afghanistan

NATO defense ministers meeting in Berlin have agreed on expanding the alliance's mission in Afghanistan next year.

The NATO plan calls for troops from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands to deploy next year in southern Afghanistan, which has previously been patrolled by American forces.

Details emerged on the last day of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Berlin.

One NATO diplomat, who asked not to be identified, says the deployment into the south will be the highest intensity mission NATO has ever undertaken.

In her words: This is not a picnic down there. The countries going in know that, and they are getting ready for it.

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld played down a report in the New York Times Wednesday that the United States plans to withdraw up to four thousand troops from Afghanistan next year as NATO assumes more responsibilities.

"The only people who are going to increase or decrease U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan will be the president of the United States or me, and it will result from recommendations from the field commanders," he said.

Following the Berlin talks, U.S. officials said there are no plans to merge the commands of the NATO forces with the American-led counter-insurgency operation against al-Qaida terrorists and fighters from the former Taliban regime.

France and Germany argue against a joint command, saying it would expose NATO forces to more danger than they are prepared to take on.

In a separate development, Secretary Rumsfeld expressed his gratitude to NATO for the assistance it is sending to the United States following hurricane Katrina.

"I certainly want to thank NATO and our friends across Europe and the world for their very generous outpouring of support for the people of the United States in the wake of hurricane Katrina," he said. "The American people are touched and grateful that so many of our friends have been so helpful."

NATO is airlifting and shipping tons of supplies, including cots, blankets and tents, to assist the many thousands of victims left homeless by the hurricane.