KABUL, May 4 (Reuters) Britain took command of NATO's Afghan peacekeeping force today as a tide of violence raised apprehension about the alliance's planned takeover of security duties across the country from US forces.
NATO's expansion in the coming months will take foreign troop numbers in Afghanistan to their highest level since the Taliban's overthrow, and will send NATO on what is set to be the toughest ground mission in its 58-year history.
The NATO force will focus on improving security so the government and international community can begin to develop the economy, while a separate US force will remain in charge of a counter-terrorist mission.
''We aim to extend and deepen the areas in which the government of Afghanistan and the wider international community can safely and coherently operate in the interests of the people,'' the new British commander, Lieutenant General David Richards, said in a speech at a change-of-command ceremony.
Violence has risen sharply in Afghanistan in recent months, with a string of deadly roadside and suicide bomb attacks, raids and ambushes.
Military officials say small groups of Taliban have infested large areas of the south and east, where in some places, the violence is the worst it has been since US and Afghan opposition forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001.
In an apparent indication of US concern, President George W. Bush discussed beefing up police in the south during a telephone call with President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday.
Commanders say the Taliban are testing new forces as they arrive, hoping casualties will sap support for the deployments back home, where critics have questioned the size of the NATO force and its rules of engagement.
STIRRING UP TROUBLE Richards, taking over ISAF from an Italian commander, said the number of foreign troops in the south is going to double, while the capability of Afghan security forces was improving.
''I am more than confident that the sceptics will be proved wrong. I have the forces, the rules of engagement and a caveat-free environment to do everything that I need,'' he told a news conference.
''It is not surprising we are stirring up some trouble as these troops deploy, because in some cases no one has ever been there before, and we need to establish, with the Afghan army, the security environment.'' ISAF now has about 9,000 troops in the relatively peaceful capital, the north and west.
Under its so-called phase three expansion, it will take over command of about 7,000 British, Canadian and Dutch troops who are moving into the south. The target date for that is July 31.
The expansion will take the numbers of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan to about 32,500 by July and August, the highest level since the Taliban were ousted.
The last phase of the expansion will see NATO taking command of U.S. forces now operating in the east, where Islamist insurgents are also active. No date has been set but it is expected late this year or early next.
NATO's move south should help the United States, stretched by the Iraq war, cut its troops in Afghanistan from 19,000 to 16,500 by around August.
The dangers of the deployment to the south were underscored last month when four Canadian soldiers were killed there in a roadside blast.
The south is also a major opium-growing region where drug gangs and the Taliban are increasingly in cahoots, military officials say.
NATO commanders say they will not be involved in eradication but will provide security for civilian anti-drug efforts.
NATO's top civilian representative in Afghanistan, Hikmet Cetin, said the mission was crucial for the 26-member alliance, and for the security of Afghanistan and the world.
''NATO cannot afford to fail in Afghanistan,'' he told the news conference. ''If we don't go to Afghanistan, Afghanistan will come to us, as terrorists, as narcotics traffickers.'' REUTERS SY PM1615