(Reuters) - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Tuesday the expansion of a NATO peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan was historic for the alliance which will soon take over some of the most dangerous parts of the country.
Rumsfeld was the second senior U.S. official to visit Afghanistan in two weeks to reaffirm U.S. support during the bloodiest phase of Taliban violence since 2001, reports Trend.
He also said more had to be done to stop cross-border violence as troops from a U.S.-led coalition force killed about 30 militants in an attack in the southern province of Helmand.
"This is an effort by NATO that is the first time in the history of that alliance, that it has undertaken a major responsibility in a country outside of Europe," Rumsfeld told a news conference with President Hamid Karzai.
"It brings the interest and the commitment of some 26 nations that are determined to see Afghanistan succeed," he said.
The NATO peacekeeping force has responsibility for the generally peaceful north, west and capital. NATO troops, most from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, are due to take over in the south from the U.S.-led coalition this month.
Groups of Taliban have infiltrated large parts of the south and east and unleashed a fierce wave of bombings, ambushes and raids. Hundreds of people have been killed in the past two months.
The violence, nearly five years after the Taliban were ousted, has taken the government and its Western backers by surprise.
The United States had been hoping to trim its Afghan force to about 16,500 but now has about 22,000. The NATO force will soon number more than 19,000.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited last month to shore up support for Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since 2001. Rumsfeld said the NATO expansion did not mean the United States was going.
U.S. forces would be part of the NATO force and the United States would continue counter-terrorism operations and training Afghan forces, he said.
"I can assure you that the United States will continue to be interested, committed and involved to success here," he said.
Karzai said U.S. help was vital. "We will keep asking for more and we will never stop asking."
In the latest fighting, U.S.-led forces and Afghan troops killed about 30 militants in a notorious district of Helmand province, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-led force said.
Coalition and Afghan troops suffered no casualties in the operation in the Sangin district, she said, adding that one helicopter made a hard landing and had to be destroyed.
Britain, which announced on Monday it was sending more troops and helicopters to bolster its force in Helmand, has lost six soldiers in Sangin in the past month.
The Taliban said the British reinforcements would have a torrid time. "We'll attack the British troops with such ferocity they will flee," Taliban commander Mullah Hayat Khan told Reuters by telephone.
The Taliban are being fueled by drug money and also get help from militant networks on the lawless Pakistani side of the border, Afghans and other officials say.
Rumsfeld, on his 11th trip to Afghanistan, said more needed to be done to stop militants crossing in to Afghanistan.
"There is no question but that there is some cross-border activity, Taliban and al Qaeda," he said. He did not mention Pakistan.
Analysts and military officials, including the commander of NATO's Afghan force, have said the international community's attention was diverted by Iraq, allowing power vacuums in Afghanistan that the Taliban filled.
Rumsfeld on Monday dismissed such arguments and the commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, said power vacuums where the government had little presence had contributed to the violence.