As NATO-led peacekeeping forces expand into more volatile regions of Afghanistan, the alliance is planning a new task force to take on combat missions there, Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said yesterday.

NATO is preparing an "ambitious" expansion into southern Afghanistan next year, said de Hoop Scheffer, who met yesterday with President Bush and other U.S. officials. Eventually, the 26-nation alliance will take charge of foreign security forces in "the whole of the country," he said in a breakfast meeting with reporters.

This week, peacekeeping troops with the 9,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) led by NATO took over responsibility from U.S. forces for security and reconstruction in parts of western Afghanistan. But the move into Afghanistan's southern and border regions, where Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents are most active, could require NATO-led forces to engage in combat, he said.

The combat mission, if finalized, would be NATO's first outside its Europe-Atlantic area of operations.

"One could find a way to have two separate missions," de Hoop Scheffer said, with a combat mission and a distinct peacekeeping mission under the umbrella of ISAF and a unified NATO command. The proposal to keep the combat task force separate is designed to make it palatable for NATO countries whose governments are opposed to a combat role for their troops in Afghanistan, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.

"For political reasons, they can't get involved in kick-down-the-door combat operations," Appathurai said. The model under consideration would create "two task forces with separate missions, but brought together near the top under one command," he said. It would also require revising the military rules of engagement to allow combat by ISAF. NATO took command of ISAF in 2003.

Ultimately, the change would allow ISAF to absorb the counterinsurgency mission, known as Operation Enduring Freedom, now carried out by a U.S.-led coalition of 18,000 troops in Afghanistan. "We have to look at the relationship between ISAF" and Operation Enduring Freedom, de Hoop Scheffer said, adding that there is a need for "more synergy" between the two operations.

Already, Britain and Canada are preparing to dispatch troops to southern Afghanistan to work with the U.S. coalition in advance of the NATO expansion, Appathurai said.

De Hoop Scheffer said NATO plans to bolster peacekeeping forces for Afghanistan's Sept. 18 parliamentary elections. A temporary influx of about 2,000 troops in three battalions would act as a quick reaction force in support of the Afghan national army, he said. He said he is "optimistic" about the willingness of NATO and partner countries to supply the forces.

On a day when a suicide bomber at a mosque in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar killed and wounded dozens of people, de Hoop Scheffer acknowledged "a little upsurge" in violence in the country. Unrest also erupted recently in Afghanistan over a Newsweek report -- later retracted -- that the U.S. military had confirmed allegations that guards had flushed a Koran down a toilet at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp.

Yet there are limits to NATO's role in Afghanistan, de Hoop Scheffer said, speaking specifically of the problem of widespread cultivation of poppies for heroin production. He said the heroin trade is Afghanistan's "most important problem" but tackling the drug business is "first and foremost" the responsibility of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government.

Although Karzai is "very motivated" to counter the spread of the drug economy, he faces pressure to ensure that Afghan farmers have an alternative source of income, de Hoop Scheffer said. "He realizes very well that this is a highly complex problem," he said. "He realizes farmers need to feed their families."

NATO troops play only a supporting role in curbing the drug trade and are "not going into the poppy fields and spraying," he said.