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Pentagon Supports International Peacekeepers Around Afghanistan

By Vernon Loeb

and Thomas E. Ricks
THE WASHINGTON POST -- washington

Senior Bush administration officials Thursday endorsed expansion of an international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan and hinted at deeper, broader and possibly longer U.S. involvement in the country after a gunman attempted to assassinate President Hamid Karzai in Kandahar and powerful bombs rocked Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz issued the Pentagon’s first explicit endorsement of deploying peacekeepers outside of Kabul in a speech Thursday morning. He said that the international force could be used to patrol outside the capital and assist new units of the Afghan army that the U.S. military is helping train.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the special White House envoy for Afghanistan, indicated deep concern for security in Afghanistan and said the administration is considering a variety of ways to bolster security in Kabul and elsewhere in the country.

He ruled out the use of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to expand the International Security Assistance Force -- a step numerous administration critics say is crucial to improving security throughout the country.

But Khalilzad said steps are being considered to accelerate the training of Afghan forces, and Wolfowitz disclosed that State Department Foreign Service officers have been stationed in several regional centers to work with U.S. Special Forces in diffusing local conflicts. The U.S. military has 8,000 troops in the country not part of the peacekeeping force but have been involved in a variety of operations from combat to school construction.

Defense and intelligence officials said they do not know who was behind Thursday’s attacks, which underscored the precarious security situation in Afghanistan and the enormous challenges that remain in reconstructing the impoverished, war-devastated nation.

The security situation in Afghanistan is better than it was a year ago, Khalilzad said, “but we have a long way to go.”

President Bush expressed relief that Karzai had not been injured in the assassination attempt and said he is looking forward to meeting with Karzai next week at the United Nations in New York.

“We’re not leaving,” Bush said of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan during a Republican fundraiser in Louisville.

Barnett Rubin, a New York University expert on Afghanistan, said that Thursday’s bombings in Kabul were more significant than the July assassination of Afghan Vice President Abdul Qadir because they are the worst yet in a growing series of terrorist attacks in the capital.

“This shows there is now an underground devoted to violence and disruption, probably to try to drive out the foreigners and destabilize the government,” said Rubin, who traveled around Afghanistan last month.

He and other experts also said they believe that support for the ousted Taliban regime is coming back in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

“People in the Pashtun areas are increasingly resentful,” said Rubin, and tend to believe that the U.S. military has a bias against them.

Wolfowitz, the Pentagon’s number two official, said the administration’s top security issue in Afghanistan remains finding a country to assume leadership of the International Security Assistance Force once Turkey’s six-month commitment expires in December.