Calls to expand Afghanistan's security outside the capital, Kabul, are again meeting resistance from U.S. government officials. Meanwhile, a U.S. State Department plan to hire private contractors to provide security for the embattled Afghan president has run into sharp criticism from ranking members of Congress.
A new State Department report to Congress says expanding the writ of international peacekeepers outside of Kabul would create what the report calls "significant logistical and command burdens" on the peacekeepers, even if their role was restricted to urban centers. Expanding it to rural areas, says the report, would be almost impossible for any outside force.
The gloomy assessment appears to contradict earlier, more upbeat statements by senior U.S. officials that had indicated that the Bush administration was willing to drop its opposition to an expansion of the peacekeeping force.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly asked the international community to move the multinational peacekeeping force outside of the capital to counter a deteriorating security situation in the countryside.
Asked about the report Wednesday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. policy remains the same. He pointed out the United States is not opposed to an expansion but did not say that it would back such a move.
"Well, again, we have not opposed the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan," he said. "Under the leadership of Turkey and earlier the United Kingdom, the force has done a superb job of maintaining the stable and secure environment that has largely prevailed in Kabul. Many of the security problems faced in Afghanistan are in the countryside and not in the cities, and that's another practical consideration."
The peacekeeping troops come from European countries, but the force has considerable logistical and intelligence support from the United States.
Mr. Boucher also quoted U.S. Coordinator for Afghanistan David Johnson as saying the U.S. stance does not preclude "other creative ideas" for security assistance outside Kabul.
In a statement, Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Congress' House International Relations Committee, blasted the report as a "whitewash." He said the current security measures it outlines, such as building an Afghan Army, are "entirely inadequate for addressing a crisis that is rapidly spiraling out of control."
Mr. Lantos, along with committee chairman, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, have also sharply criticized a plan to replace Mr. Karzai's U.S. military bodyguards with a private security force. In a joint letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, the two congressmen said Mr. Karzai's protection should be provided by U.S. troops and civilian diplomatic security agents until a competent Afghan security detail can be trained and equipped.
U.S. special forces troops have been guarding Mr. Karzai, and a U.S. soldier killed a potential assassin in a recent attempt on the Afghan leaders' life. The protection was to have been turned over to State Department security. But Mr. Boucher said the State Department planned to hire the services of a private security firm because Diplomatic Security agents do not have the necessary expertise.
"[The] Diplomatic Security Service is a civilian law enforcement and security service. It operates in an area where the rule of law governs," said Mr. Boucher. "That is not necessarily the situation in Afghanistan. So we need to bring on necessary specialists in order to do the job properly. And that would require the use of contractors."
U.S. officials say contractors have weapons and tactical training that diplomatic security officers lack.