updated 3/2/2009 3:05:24 PM ET 2009-03-02T20:05:24

NATO may ask China to provide support for the war effort in Afghanistan, including possibly opening a supply link for alliance forces, a senior U.S. official said Monday.

The subject is still under consideration and no decision has been reached on whether to approach Beijing, the official said on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue.

He spoke ahead of a meeting of NATO foreign ministers on Thursday in Brussels, which will include Hillary Rodham Clinton in her first European trip as U.S. secretary of state.

One way Beijing could help would be to open an alternate logistics route through western China into Afghanistan, the U.S. official said in Brussels.

China shares a 76-kilometer- (50-mile)-long border with Afghanistan in the Wakhan Corridor, a thin sparsely populated strip of Afghan territory separating Pakistan and Tajikistan. The 2,000-year-old-caravan route — once used by Marco Polo — is now a dirt road that crosses some of the world's most mountainous regions.

China has shied away from involvement
Until now, China — which also has faced problems with Islamic militants in its western regions — has generally been supportive of the Afghan government and the U.S.-led allied war effort. But Beijing has shied away from involving itself too closely in the conflict.

The NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels comes amid intense diplomatic efforts to secure alternate supply routes to Afghanistan, to augment the main logistical lines through Pakistan, which have been under increasing attacks by Taliban guerrillas.

Russia and several other Central Asian states — which also are concerned about the progress of the war in Afghanistan — have allowed the United States, Germany and some other NATO nations to ferry non-lethal equipment by rail to the borders of Afghanistan, thus easing the supply squeeze faced by the alliance.

But NATO has continued to look for more routes to landlocked Afghanistan, especially after President Barack Obama announced that 17,000 more U.S. troops would be sent to reinforce the 56,000 allied soldiers already there. Some officials have even suggested that individual nations could explore opening up a new route through Iran to western Afghanistan.

The U.S. official said that NATO was looking to the allies to come up with four additional infantry battalions to be temporarily deployed to Afghanistan to help secure the presidential election campaign this spring or summer. A battalion normally includes 750 to 850 soldiers.

Attacks by insurgents have intensified, and the rebels now control wide swaths of countryside where there aren't enough NATO or Afghan forces to maintain security.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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