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Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – Growing signs of instability in Afghanistan, where rival warlords are battling for power, threaten to propel the American military into a bigger role in fending off chaos.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who long has argued against a U.S. peacekeeping role in Afghanistan, said for the first time Thursday that he was unsure whether that eventually might be necessary.

He said Afghanistan’s interim leader, Hamid Karzai, has good reason to worry about instability because rival factions still are jostling for power, al-Qaida and Taliban fighters remain on the loose and Iran is creating trouble by spiriting weapons across the border in support of factions opposed to Karzai.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.

Highlighting the problem, a U.S. official said the Central Intelligence Agency is warning in a classified analysis that Afghanistan could descend into civil war unless more is done soon to bring stability.

The report cites tensions between ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks in northern Afghanistan – two groups that made up much of the U.S.-supported northern alliance – and in regions where no clear leader took power, said the U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In Kabul, gunmen opened fire on a British patrol and the British returned fire, a peacekeepers’ spokesman said Thursday. It was the second such incident in less than a week.

An additional concern for the United States is that some anti-Taliban warlords have tried to create situations in which U.S. firepower is used against rival Afghan forces, making it appear the U.S. military is taking sides in civil conflict.

“It’s in our interests as a country to take the kinds of steps … to assist that country in providing a more stable and secure environment,” Rumsfeld said.

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In Rumsfeld’s view, it would be more logical to use U.S. troops to help Afghanistan create a national army that could provide the needed security than to use American or other foreign forces to keep peace. He fears creating an Afghan dependence on outsiders that would limit the country’s return to normalcy.

But the secretary did not rule out that up to 30,000 U.S. troops might be sent to “police the whole country” if it is determined an Afghan military cannot be created soon enough to stop a slide into chaos.

About 4,000 U.S. troops are there now, but not as peacekeepers. They are hunting for Osama bin Laden and remnants of the al-Qaida network, supporting humanitarian relief efforts, guarding and interrogating Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners, and working with Afghan government officials on civil restoration projects.

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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