BERLIN – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) pledged Wednesday that U.S. military forces "will continue to play a strong role" in Afghanistan even after NATO allies expand their peacekeeping operation across the country next year.
At the conclusion of a two-day NATO meeting, Rumsfeld took reporters' questions about the American presence there but stoutly avoided getting into any specifics about force levels.
"U.S. forces will, of course, continue to play a strong role," he said.
Asked about reports the Bush administration wants to slash the U.S. military presence there by as much as 20 percent, Rumsfeld told a news conference that "the only people who are going to increase or decrease U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be the president of the United States or me."
Rumsfeld said that U.S. officials are constantly assessing and reassessing troop levels and said that they have been raising or lowering the U.S. military presence as required and necessary.
"If and when there's any decision to decrease forces," he said, "I will announce it."
Both The New York Times and The Washington Post reported in Thursday's editions that the administration was considering cutting the troop strength there by as much as 20 percent.
Rumsfeld said Tuesday that NATO should ultimately take over anti-terrorism operations and drug interdiction in Afghanistan (search), now handled by the U.S.-led coalition, but he refused to set a timetable for drawing down American troops.
More detailed talk was stifled by fears about increased violence accompanying parliamentary elections in Afghanistan scheduled for this coming weekend, as well as the upcoming elections in Germany (search), where some have openly opposed any increased combat missions for NATO.
Rumsfeld dismissed as "much ado about nothing" reported divisions among the alliance countries over whether NATO should work toward a unified peacekeeping and military command structure.
During the meetings, Rumsfeld urged his defense counterparts to find ways to increase the military flexibility of NATO's forces and the financing for the alliance. Several countries put limits on the military activity their forces can engage in as part of NATO, such as limiting where they can go or what type of combat force they can use.
"I personally am encouraged by the enduring effort to make the alliance a more flexible and more capable force," Rumsfeld said.
There will be a "unity of effort if not a unity of command," he said.
Afghanistan's elections come four years after the U.S. invaded the country to overthrow the Taliban. Insurgents have vowed to disrupt the balloting.
NATO has 11,000 mostly European troops providing security in northern and western Afghanistan. Around 19,000 U.S.-led troops cover the south and east.
The alliance plans to expand slowly its peacekeeping role and eventually take primary responsibility for security in the country. Thirty-five countries have troops in Afghanistan, including a number of non-NATO nations.
Under the NATO plan, German troops will take the lead role in the north, Italians in the west, British in the south and Americans under NATO command in the east. French and Turkish troops will lead in Kabul — working alongside Afghanistan's fledgling army and police.
Meanwhile, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the U.S.-led coalition needs to reconsider the way it is fighting Taliban-led rebels. His comments came after six months of fierce battles that have left more than 1,200 dead. He suggested combating the problem where "terrorists are trained" but declined to elaborate.
Afghan officials say many insurgents train in secret bases in neighboring Pakistan, despite denials from Islamabad.