PORTOROZ, Slovenia -- NATO said yesterday that it would take control of military operations across all of Afghanistan in what US Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hailed as a ``bold step forward."
As many as 12,000 additional American troops will be put under foreign battlefield command. That could be the most since World War II, US officials said.
The move is expected to take place in the next few weeks, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.
The largest number of US troops ever under the control of foreign battlefield commanders was about 300,000 during World War I, said military officials traveling with Rumsfeld to the NATO meeting.
It was not clear how many troops were under foreign command during World War II. A US officer, General James L. Jones, is in charge of the overall NATO force in Afghanistan, but the new arrangement would put the US troops under foreign commanders on the battlefield.
The NATO ministers also agreed to provide substantial amounts of military equipment for the Afghan Army.
``There were, in rough numbers, thousands of weapons offered up, and I believe probably millions of rounds of ammunition," Rumsfeld told reporters.
Rumsfeld said at a news conference that some countries had stepped forward in response to appeals from NATO commanders for as many as 2,500 more troops to join the operation against the Taliban in the south. But he said more were still needed. He declined to say which countries had made offers.
NATO-led troops took command of the southern portion of Afghanistan two months ago and have been struggling to stem the escalating violence there. This plan would extend their control to the eastern section, which US troops now command.
NATO's takeover of the eastern section had been expected later this fall, and it would switch at least 10,000 American troops from US command to NATO control -- specifically British Lieutenant General David Richards. Currently about 2,000 US troops are serving under NATO commanders in other portions of Afghanistan.
Currently there are about 20,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan and an additional 21,000 from the United States.