Germany Willing to Boost Afghan Role

Germany is willing to expand its military engagement in Afghanistan, visiting Defense Minister Peter Struck (search) said Tuesday, offering to take charge of NATO's security operation across the north of the country.

"We want in no way to reduce our engagement in Afghanistan but rather to improve it, above all in the north by taking responsibility in Mazar-e-Sharif (search) starting in October," Struck said after talks with his Afghan counterpart in Kabul (search).

The Berlin government wants to lift the maximum number of its troops in Afghanistan from 2,250 to 2,500, Struck said late Monday en route to the Afghan capital. The German parliament will likely approve the changes in October, he said.

Germany has been a key supplier of troops to the International Security Assistance Force, presently under NATO command, which is charged with bolstering Karzai's feeble authority against armed ethnic factions and warlord militias.

Deployed to the capital after the fall of the Taliban (search) in 2001, the currently 8,500-strong international force expanded last year across the north and is currently sending troops under Italian leadership to the west of the country.

Germany already has small detachments in two northern towns but could also displace British troops from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Britain is expected to lead the NATO force's planned expansion into the south of the country later this year or in 2006.

The changes would allow the separate U.S.-led force of 18,000 to focus on areas along the Pakistani border where Taliban-led insurgents continue to mount regular attacks on American and Afghan troops.

U.S. commanders have suggested the American force could be trimmed once the Sept. 18 election is over and if more former Taliban officials take up a government reconciliation offer.

Afghan Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said the task facing NATO troops would alter as the U.S.-trained Afghan National Army increased in strength. The new army is projected to meet its full 70,000 contingent by September 2007.

"The nature of the NATO forces will change from physically providing the security to supporting and mentoring the ANA," Wardak said after thanking Germany for its contribution so far.

Struck, who was to meet later Tuesday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said Afghanistan remained "not calm and not stable" and said foreign troops could be at risk as the Afghan government pursues a crackdown on the country's illegal narcotics industry, the world's largest.

"We cannot exclude that we will be the target of reprisals," he said.

On Monday, Struck visited German soldiers training Iraqi troops in the United Arab Emirates.

The minister held talks in Samarkand with Uzbek officials on delivering supplies to German troops in Afghanistan via the Uzbek city of Termez.