updated 8/4/2005 9:37:39 AM ET 2005-08-04T13:37:39

NATO-led international troops will be ready to assume responsibility for security across all of Afghanistan by the end of next year, freeing up thousands of American forces, a top NATO general said Thursday.

There has long been a plan to expand the 10,000-strong NATO force here into Afghanistan’s volatile south and east, but the timing for its completion has never been specific. Washington has long sought such a move, hoping to relieve many of its 17,600 front-line troops still here.

“We are in a position that we can take over the responsibility for all of Afghanistan in the course of the next year,” said Gen. Gerhard Back, who oversees the International Security Assistance Force mission from his base in Brunssum, the Netherlands.

He made the comments to reporters after a ceremony marking the change of the command of ISAF from a Turkish general to Italian Lt. Gen. Mauro Del Vecchio.

Kabul already NATO zone
ISAF already maintains security in the capital, Kabul, and the country’s north and west. It plans to increase its size and take over from the U.S.-led coalition in the violence-wracked south early next year, before gradually moving into the east.

It is not clear how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after NATO takes command of security for all the country, ISAF spokesman Riccardo Cristoni said. But most American forces that do stay would be led by NATO, he said.

Cristoni said it was also not clear whether the United States would keep a separate force dedicated to hunting Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders believed to be hiding along the mountainous Afghan-Pakistani border.

A U.S. military spokeswoman, Lt. Cindy Moore, said commanders were still planning how many troops would remain here next year.

More troops ahead of elections
NATO has boosted the size of its force in the past few weeks in preparation for legislative elections on Sept. 18. It plans to bring in another 2,000 troops before the polls.

Afghan, NATO and American officials have all warned that a recent upsurge in violence by Taliban-led rebels may threaten the ballot, which is the next key step toward democracy after a quarter century of war. More than 900 people have been killed since March, when winter snows melt on mountain passes the insurgents use.

“Some sources of instability like Taliban, al-Qaida and other elements might still pose a danger to the democratic process in Afghanistan,” said Hikmet Cetin, the top civilian representative for NATO in Afghanistan. “We are aware that at the critical juncture for Afghans’ future, the security situation could not be taken for granted.”

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