US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says it is up to Afghan groups to decide if they want international peacekeeping forces in their country.

Mr. Rumsfeld says there is an urgent need for stability and security throughout Afghanistan, especially to speed the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

But Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon the preferred option for achieving security and stability is to use local forces, not outsiders. Besides, he said, foreign forces could become targets vulnerable to attack. "Your first choice is to have a stable situation created by people who live there," he said, "because anything other than that is unnatural, is abnormal, out of the order, and it becomes a target."

Mr. Rumsfeld's comments follow a report in The Washington Post newspaper saying U-S military commanders have barred the speedy deployment of international peacekeepers out of concern their presence could interfere with American anti-terrorist operations.

The US defense secretary acknowledged that is a potential problem, but he also said it is not up to the United States to decide whether international peacekeepers are welcome. "The real issue is at what point will the forces on the ground and the political figures, who are discussing a potential provisional government of some sort, decide that it is in their individual and collective interest to have peacekeeping forces, where and with what makeup. And it is that that is going to determine it, not the United States," added Mr. Rumsfeld.

Mr. Rumsfeld's comments came as the nominal head of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, told reporters in Kabul any international security force should be limited to 200 troops at most.