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Gates says U.S. could eye expanded Afghanistan role

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TEXARKANA, Texas (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday the United States could consider taking over NATO's command in southern Afghanistan, where some NATO allies have been reluctant to provide combat forces.

But Gates said the Pentagon would consult closely with NATO allies, particularly those countries with combat forces in the southern region, before making any decision to alter its military role in the country.

Southern Afghanistan, which has seen the worst of a rising tide of Taliban violence, is now under NATO command. Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia all have forces in the region.

"This is a matter that's going to be looked at over probably some period of time primarily because it requires consultation with our allies," Gates told reporters when asked to comment on discussion at the Pentagon about the possibility of taking over command in southern Afghanistan.

"It certainly is worth taking a look at," he added.

The United States has 34,000 troops in Afghanistan under two commands.

About 16,000 soldiers under U.S. European Command serve as part of a 47,000-strong NATO force. A further 18,000 U.S. troops are in the country separately under U.S. Central Command.

Gates was speaking during a visit to the Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, where the U.S. Army refurbishes and re-equips fighting vehicles for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We need to look also at some of our own command and control arrangements. For example, does it continue to make sense to have two combatant commands involved in one country?" the defense chief said.

"We're basically just trying to see how do you best provide for unity of command, how do you have the most effective operations possible in Afghanistan," he added.

Violence in Afghanistan has risen sharply over the past two years to the highest level since U.S.-led forces invaded the country in 2001 and toppled the Taliban government in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The United States has begun to increase its troop presence in the south where some NATO countries have been reluctant to send forces.

Canada threatened briefly to withdraw its 2,500 soldiers from southern Afghanistan unless more NATO troops were sent to the region.

The Canadians relented last month when France offered several hundred additional soldiers. But the French forces will go to eastern Afghanistan, allowing some of the U.S. troops deployed there to reinforce the Canadians in the south.

About 2,000 of 3,200 U.S. Marines the Pentagon decided to send to Afghanistan earlier this year on a temporary deployment are also assigned to combat duties in the southern region.

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