Germany, U.S., Seek to Extend NATO Force in Afghanistan Past Capital

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Germany and the United States asked NATO (search) on Wednesday to consider expanding the mandate of the alliance's Afghan peacekeeping force beyond Kabul to protect reconstruction teams outside the capital.

NATO ambassadors took no action on the request at their weekly meeting, and are expected to seek advice from military planners on how to extend the range of the 5,000-strong peacekeeping force into the provinces.

Alliance officials said they expected NATO members to approve the request, which would also need the United Nations' OK.

NATO took command of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul last month in its first military deployment outside Europe or North America.

The force's U.N. mandate is limited to the capital, where it helps Afghan authorities maintain order and train local security forces.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search), Afghan President Hamid Karzai (search) and aid agencies have long called for the force to expand operations throughout the country, much of which remains under the sway of feuding warlords.

Western nations have been reluctant to do that, but in recent days, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have backed an expanded role.

"We'll be looking for some military advice on how feasible it would be," NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson said late Tuesday. "It's on the table."

Germany wants the NATO-led force to provide cover for some 200 troops it plans to send to the northern region of Kunduz to back reconstruction efforts there.

With its forces stretched in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States is encouraging other nations to set up "provincial reconstruction teams" to help restore authority in remote parts of the country.

The NATO-led force in Kabul operates separately from the 10,000 U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom to fight remaining Taliban and al-Qaida forces.

NATO also heard a stark warning Wednesday from the U.N.'s top counter-narcotics official on the dangers of the heroin trade from Afghanistan.

"Unless we get some results and bring this monster under control ... then the country is going to explode and we get a failed state," said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. office on drugs and crime.

Visiting NATO headquarters after a two-week tour of Afghanistan, Costa said the international military forces must play a larger role in eradicating drug trafficking that he estimates brings about $2.5 billion into Afghanistan.

With minimal law enforcement in the provinces, Costa said there was little to prevent farmers from growing opium, which brings them ten times more cash than wheat or other traditional crops.