Britain may be forced to take lead with peace-keeping role

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Britain may reluctantly take the lead with a peace-keeping force in Afghanistan if no other European nation volunteers for the role, even though it has not offered to do so.

Delicate international negotiations over the make-up of the force were taking place as America threw its weight behind the dispatch of a multinational contingent to Afghanis-tan. The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said that "there will be no shortage of troops", although the composition, structure and remit of the mission has yet to be resolved.

While the force will be covered by a United Natioins resolution, it will not be under "blue-helmeted" UN leadership. The coalition force will include Islamic troops and be under one central command.

As Taliban resistance crumbles, the American presence in Afghanistan is expected to be wound down. Officials say a European nation is likely to take the lead, and that Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan are possible sources of troops for the so-called stabilisation force.

Germany, which organised the UN-backed talks on the future of Afghanistan, has said it will contribute to the force but there is no indication it is willing to take the lead.

General Powell told a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels that he had been impressed with the offers of assistance from alliance countries and that more of those would be taken up once the direct military phase ended.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said Britain would be "willing to play its part" by making troops available. "How many people depends on exactly what the force will do and on a military assessment," Mr Straw said, adding that "the potential size could vary very significantly".

German politicians made clear that the inadequacies of their country's armed forces meant that it was only prepared to take a modest peace-keeping role in Afghanistan.

Peter Zumkley, the Defence spokesman of the governing Social Democrat Party, called for a "limited" if somewhat "more than symbolic" German participation. "We have to take account of the fact that the Bundeswehr is already committed, and that additional structural reforms are due next year," he said.

Germany has 8,500 troops stationed in the Balkans or committed to the region. It already commands the peace-keeping forces in Macedonia. Another 3,900 are on stand-by for combat missions in Afghanistan, though these are not suitable for policing duties.