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NATO could cover all Afghanistan by August: General

Written by: Staff
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Mons (Belgium), Mar 31: NATO is capable of taking over peacekeeping duties across all of Afghanistan as early as August if member nations want, the alliance's top commander of operations today said.

NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe General James Jones said he expected the NATO-led ISAF force to cover three-quarters of the country by July and reaffirmed plans under which a final expansion to the east would mostly involve simply transferring US troops already there to ISAF.

''If everything goes well, it is possible -- if the alliance wants it -- to achieve stage three in July and stage four in August,'' he told a news briefing, using NATO terms for the planned expansion of ISAF to the south and then to the east.

''The United States would have to agree to that. It is a procedural question. The forces are there,'' he added.

No formal timetable has been set for ISAF's move eastwards but NATO officials had spoken of it happening much later than August.

The most ambitious target mooted had been October.

NATO took over ISAF in 2003, two years after US-led forces ousted Afghanistan's Taliban ex-rulers. It currently operates in the capital Kabul, north and west.

Jones said the transfer to ISAF of some of the US troops already stationed in east Afghanistan as part of a US-led coalition would raise ISAF's total strength to between 23,000 and 25,000 from a current total of around 17,000.

The United States would continue to have separate forces in Afghanistan who would then focus on the hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda remnants seen as behind the insurgency there.

NATO's planned move to the south already unnerved public opinion in several European NATO countries this year after a spate of suicide attacks by insurgents on foreign troops.

The plan to transfer thousands of U.S. troops in the east to ISAF has the potential to stir U.S. domestic opinion, marking what could turn out to be the largest deployment of US ground troops under non-US command.

''It is an expression of confidence in the alliance,'' Jones, a US general, said of the U.S. readiness to go ahead with such a move.

''It is a little bit of a departure,'' he added.

REUTERS

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