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Pentagon Official: US 'Not Opposed' to Larger Peacekeeping Mission in Afghanistan

A senior U.S. Defense official is leaving open the possibility that the United States could endorse expansion of the international peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz discussed the issue before a Congressional panel Wednesday.

The peacekeeping mission, known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is currently guarding the Afghan capital, Kabul. But some U.S. lawmakers would like to see the force expand to other parts of the country to enhance security.

Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, noted that Afghan leader Hamid Karzai and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan have called for expansion of the U.N.-mandated force.

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the panel, also addressed the issue at a hearing on Afghanistan.

"I continue to be concerned that the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, may not be up to the task of ensuring the requisite amount of security for Afghan reconstruction to continue," he said. "The ability of ISAF to maintain peace and security and protect power into farthest reaches of Afghanistan is vitally important if the international community is to assist [Afghan leader Hamid] Karzai in enforcing the rule of law and defending the threat posed by extremist war lords and terrorists. Only then can we replace Afghanistan's despair with the genuine future of hope."

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz suggested to the committee that the United States could consider backing a larger peacekeeping mission. "No one is saying that we are opposed to expanding ISAF," he said.

Turkey took over command of the peacekeeping force from the British last week.

Mr. Wolfowitz said when Turkey agreed to take command of the mission, it expressed 'extreme reluctance' to take on missions beyond Kabul. He suggested that the many challenges facing the Afghan government may be a reason why. He said, "It is important to remember the magnitude of the problems that this new government has inherited, and the sheer size and unruliness of the country."