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NATO Ready To Expand Afghan Operation --> NATO's Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (file photo) 10 February 2005 -- NATO says it is ready to expand the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into western Afghanistan. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer made the announcement after a meeting of NATO defense ministers in southern France today.

Scheffer said NATO received pledges for further troop deployments for ISAF, which now numbers 8,500 soldiers and works primarily in Kabul and northern Afghanistan.

French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told journalists that expansion of NATO-led forces into southern Afghanistan was also discussed. Deployment there is more controversial, because remnants of the ousted Taliban regime are still active there.

"With regards to the continuation of this enlargement toward the south, it will be the third phase," Alliot-Marie said, "and some (NATO) allies expect to go ahead quickly, while others are far more cautious."

The United States has called on its European NATO allies to commit more forces to security missions in Afghanistan, as well as to training missions for Iraq security forces.

Today's agreement on Afghanistan came after Italy, Spain, and Lithuania committed to sending hundreds of troops to support the ISAF mission.