The commander of NATO forces worldwide says his troops from several countries are on track to take responsibility for security in southern Afghanistan in July, and that NATO could expand to the one remaining section of the country immediately afterwards. The commander spoke to reporters at the airport in the main southern Afghan city of Kandahar Wednesday and VOA's Al Pessin was there.

This facility looks more like a construction site than an airport, with new housing and runway space being added every day. It is all part of NATO's expansion into this part of Afghanistan, where insurgents have increased their attacks in an apparent effort to make gains before the NATO force is fully in place.

But the NATO commander, American General James Jones, says his British, Canadian and Dutch troops are nearly ready to take control of the region from the U.S. led coalition that ousted the Taleban four and a half years ago. "We're moving towards our stated goal of transferring the authority to Stage Three sometime in July," he said.

And while political leaders, including U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have been cautious about predicting when NATO might take over in eastern Afghanistan, where the insurgency is also strong, General Jones is not reluctant to state his preference. "Everything has been agreed to. The command structure has been agreed to. The rules of engagement have been agreed to. We know exactly how the operation is going to work. And so, my personal military advice would be Stage Four should come as quickly as possible," he said.

Even after NATO takes responsibility for security in eastern Afghanistan, the U.S. troops that are already there will continue to do most of the work, under NATO's British commander in Kabul. So General Jones says NATO's expansion to the east could even happen the day after it takes control in the south.

The general says a continuing U.S. role is important, not only in the east, but also leading the counter-terrorism effort nationwide. "The importance of the United States' commitment, visible commitment, remains absolutely essential. And I'm quite sure that that will continue to be there," he said.

In all, NATO will have a bit more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan when the transition is complete, nearly 50 per cent more than the U.S.-led coalition has had. And in addition, there will continue to be some U.S. troops in the country outside the NATO command. Just how many has yet to be decided.

And General Jones says to his amazement all the countries involved have agreed to operate under the same 'rules of engagement,' without the individual national restrictions called 'caveats' that have hampered NATO operations in the past. "That is really not going to be the problem. What the challenge is, is sustainment and making sure that nations understand this is not just a military solution and that we have to continue to apply the pressures that are necessary, and the resources that are necessary across the broad spectrum of the Afghan society to make sure that this country gets on its way to not needing us," he said.

NATO officials say the effort will take years, and General Jones says it is hard to predict whether public opinion in NATO countries will allow for that type of long-term commitment. But he says some quick results will help.