NATO foreign ministers have approved a plan to expand the alliance's peacekeeping force in Afghanistan into the volatile southern part of the country next year.
NATO has gradually expanded its operations in Afghanistan from Kabul, the capital, into the north of the country and, more recently, into the western region. When it starts operating in southern Afghanistan, it will face one of the biggest challenges in its history.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer says the alliance's expanded mission, which will see 6,000 new troops strengthening the 9,500 NATO peacekeepers now in Afghanistan, will mean that the alliance will operate over three fourths of the war-torn country.
"Of course, this expansion will take NATO into more volatile territory, but there should be no doubt. Our forces will have the equipment and the support they need to do the job. They will have the rules of engagement they need to carry out their mission. And they will do something very important indeed," he said. "They will bring peace to more people in Afghanistan who have suffered terribly. And they will help ensure that terrorism cannot take hold once again of this country and use it as a base from which to threaten the world as it was under the rule of the Taleban."
The move into the south will give NATO forces a more robust self-defense mandate, and, if they face serious attack from remnants of the Taleban or other insurgents, they will be able to count on support from U.S-led combat troops who are engaged in counterinsurgency operations in the region.
The plan approved by the foreign ministers also sets up a double command structure whereby the NATO peacekeepers will work more closely with the separate U.S.-led combat force, although some allies are concerned that the arrangement will drag NATO troops into front line operations and away from their peacekeeping role.
The alliance will also increase its provincial reconstruction teams, joint military-civilian groups that are tasked with spreading the Afghan government's authority into distant provinces, from the current nine to 13.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says that the expansion of NATO's operations proves that the alliance intends to live up to its commitment to help Afghanistan.
"We want to underscore that NATO wants to work on a long-term plan of security cooperation and training and support for Afghanistan to help reform and strengthen its defense institutions," said Ms. Rice.
The United States has long advocated a greater role for NATO in Afghanistan, partly because it wants to scale back its own forces in the country. But force generation, as it is called, has been a perennial problem for the alliance, with many members unwilling to cough up the necessary resources. This time, though, NATO officials say they have strong commitments from such countries as Britain, Canada, and possibly, the Netherlands. NATO officials add that they will be able to move into the south by May of next year.