(New York) - Human Rights Watch today welcomed a statement by a senior U.S. Defense Department official that the Bush administration has dropped its opposition to expanding international peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan.

Human Rights Watch called on the United States to immediately begin discussions with other members of the U.N. Security Council to approve an expansion of the peacekeeping mandate in Afghanistan.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a peacekeeping force of 19 states currently under Turkish command, has been confined to providing security within Kabul. In an August 27 interview with a London newspaper (The Daily Telegraph), Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said that the U.S. would no longer oppose the expansion of ISAF to other areas in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch today confirmed with administration officials in Washington D.C. that American policy has shifted, though a decision to pro-actively seek ISAF expansion had not yet been made.

"The Bush administration has finally acknowledged that the scope of ISAF should be expanded," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "But the administration should now take the lead to act."

President Hamid Karzai and many Afghans have repeatedly called for ISAF expansion. Greater security is needed for reconstruction of the country, protection of women's rights, the safe return of refugees and the internally displaced, and to support the Bonn process, Human Rights Watch said.

With ISAF limited to Kabul, the Afghan government has been heavily dependent on regional warlords to provide basic security. Human Rights Watch has noted that security conditions in many areas of Afghanistan remain dire, and serious abuses of human rights continue. There are several areas in and around the cities of Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar, in which criminals and local warlords have reportedly threatened and harassed the populace, particularly ethnic minorities and returning refugees and displaced persons.

Human Rights Watch urged the United States and others on the U.N. Security Council to redefine ISAF's mandate to include areas deemed insecure by the U.N. mission in Afghanistan and by the Afghan government. The United States currently has the Security Council presidency. Human Rights Watch called for expansion of ISAF to other major cities and intermediary roads, as a preliminary step.