KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai said today that the international force policing the capital should be expanded and deployed in the chaotic provinces, while U.S. leaders said that the American military presence in the country might be prolonged.
U.S. forces were holding 27 prisoners — including some described by the Pentagon as senior Taliban — captured during a firefight that wounded one Army Special Forces soldier and killed several al-Qaida or Taliban fighters.
Karzai made his comments on the peacekeeping force after meeting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, visiting Afghanistan to bolster the post-Taliban government.
The interim leader also announced the 21 names on a commission to appoint a loya jirga, or grand council, that will choose a transitional government to rule when his government's six-month term expires.
The multinational security force — led by Britain and due to eventually grow to about 5,000 troops — is confined to Kabul, while warlords with deep feuds hold sway in the provinces and threaten to undermine the six-month interim administration that Karzai heads.
Karzai said there was a wide desire among Afghans for a bigger international military presence to help bring stability across the war-shattered country.
"A lot of Afghans who came to see us in the past month asked us for the presence of the international security force in other parts of Afghanistan," he said at a news conference with Annan in Kabul.
The U.S.-led forces hunting renegades operate separately from the peacekeeping force, which now numbers about 2,200. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday U.S. troops would stay in Afghanistan at least into the summer to help the new government find its feet.
The 27 fighters captured in a U.S. raid on Wednesday at Hazar Qadam, north of Kandahar, are believed to be "relatively senior" figures and are predominantly Taliban, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said Friday. She said a "very large cache" of weapons was also uncovered.
The prisoners seized in the attack on two Taliban compounds were "most likely" being interrogated at the U.S. base at Kandahar airport, where hundreds of al-Qaida and Taliban members are detained, spokesman Capt. Tony Rivers said.
Several fighters were killed, officials said. "There were casualties, but we don't keep body counts," Rivers told The Associated Press.
Clarke said the weapons stash illustrates the size of the task ahead.
Meanwhile, the first of three planeloads of U.S. congressmen arrived in Cuba at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base detention center today to learn whether captured al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are providing useful intelligence for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
Most of the lawmakers insisted the visit does not aim to examine the issue of whether the prisoners are being treated humanely — but some delegation members said they would keep an eye on the conditions, a high concern of some U.S. allies.
"At this stage of the game, the fact that you can go into a place like that and find such a large supply of arms and ammunition is a sign that our efforts are far from over," Clarke said.
The military has refused to discuss the specifics of the mission, one of the few highly secret special forces operations to gain public notice. The region, about 60 miles north of Kandahar, is one focus of the hunt to crush survivors of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network and their Taliban allies.
The soldier wounded in the ankle, who was not identified, was the first American battlefield casualty since Army Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman was killed Jan. 4 in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan. Eleven U.S. troops have been killed in aviation crashes during the Afghan campaign.
With the country struggling to get back on its feet despite continued volatility, Annan became the first U.N. secretary general to visit Afghanistan since Dag Hammarskjold in 1959.
Annan did not directly reply when asked if the United Nations would consider an expanded mission, but said he and Karzai had discussed "urgent formation of an Afghan police force and an Afghan army."
Earlier this week, Francesc Vendrell, the No. 2 U.N. representative in Afghanistan, said he feels the multinational force should be about 30,000 strong and deployed outside the capital.
"In talking to most of the ministers of the interim administration, they all coincide — they want the international force to be expanded to other areas," Vendrell, who steps down at the end of this month, said at his final news conference in Kabul.
Annan also promised to prod donor nations to quickly fulfill pledges of some $4.5 billion made to Karzai's administration during a Tokyo conference earlier this week.
"I know there is concern that there will be fatigue once the cameras are gone, that the donors will forget their commitments," Annan said. "I will be reminding them. We all will be reminding them." Annan also conferre with chiefs of the U.N. agencies administering aid to Afghanistan.
The commission to form a loya jirga will be chaired by Ismail Kassim Yar, a well-known Afghan journalist and an expert in constitutional law. In keeping with plans to include women in the loya jirga for the first time, the commission's vice chair is a woman, Mahbouba Hukukmal.
The loya jirga is to convene before the interim government's six-month term expires and chose a transitional government to rule for 18 months, until elections are held.
The United Nations hopes the loya jirga will comprise a broad base of regional, tribal and ethnic leaders who can find common ground and prevent the country from backsliding into chaos and violence.
Karzai, reading the list, pointed out about a half-dozen names he knew. "All the others I don't know," he said. "This shows it is a really nice commission."