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KABUL, Afghanistan — Helping provide security for the country’s first-ever parliamentary elections Sunday is just the beginning of challenges Lt. Gen. Mauro Del Vecchio sees ahead in his nine-month command.

Del Vecchio also will be in charge as NATO’s International Security Assistance Force — the first force NATO has ever fielded outside of Europe — works to broaden its area of responsibility to more fractious parts of Afghanistan amid debate about how best to accomplish that.

“These phases will be very, very sensitive and delicate,” Del Vecchio said.

As NATO expands from its original base in Kabul to the southern region sometime next spring, the U.S. military — Combined Joint Task Force 76 — would retain responsibility only for the eastern region.

That could mean a reduction of some of the 20,000 U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan. Gen. John Abizaid, senior U.S. commander in the region, told The Washington Post, “It makes sense that as NATO forces go in, and they’re more in number, that we could drop some of the U.S. requirement somewhat.”

But in the south, along with the east bordering Pakistan, combat operations by the U.S. are still ongoing.

Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, the task force commander, said he has impressed on his ISAF colleagues that the south is different from the generally peaceful north and west. “In the south, you also have security operations,” Kamiya said. “We’re doing everything possible that NATO understands the full range of the mission set.”

Security operations means “taking away enemy movements, offensive patrols, going after enemy areas,” said Lt. Col. Jerry O’Hara, task force spokesman. It means “killing insurgents in their staging areas.”

Maj. Andrew Elmes, ISAF spokesman, said ISAF’s mandate “is not an offensive one. We’re authorized to protect life,” he said.

It’s unclear what ISAF’s rules of engagement are.

But Gen. Gerhard Back, commander in chief of NATO forces in Northern Europe, recently said ISAF would seek to change them to become more “robust.”

Even as NATO defense ministers met in Berlin this week to discuss the expansion, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged countries to reduce “national caveats” that restrict what sorts of operations troops will do. One country, for instance, will not allow its forces to engage in crowd control.

But Elmes said, “We don’t look at caveats as an issue within NATO. It’s not something that concerns us. We get on with our mission.”

Officials in Germany, which makes up the largest contingent of the ISAF force with some 2,162 troops, have said they would not conduct combat operations.

“There is a clear ‘no’ from us to that,” Defense Minister Peter Struck said Saturday in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “That would double the threat to our soldiers and also worsen the atmosphere in Afghanistan.”

Elmes said no changes in the rules of engagement have yet been decided, nor has it been determined which troops from what countries would be assigned to the south. But, he said, “It is not envisaged that our mandate is to change.”

But even self-defense can sometimes be unclear in its scope, noted Gen. B.B. Bell, U.S. Army Europe commander and commander of NATO’s Land Component Command Headquarters in Heidelberg.

“If you want to defend yourself, is it proper to wait until he attacks you? What does the right of self-defense mean? So there is debate in NATO,” Bell said.

O’Hara said the plan was for the task force to “set the conditions” so that NATO could take over. “We’re going to be after the enemy during and after the elections,” he said. “We’re not going to let up.”

The U.S. and NATO also are counting on the Afghan army — with 25,000 troops, 6,500 more being trained and with a goal of 70,000 members — and the Afghan police, now a 50,000-man force, to eventually take responsibility. But that will take time.

“Nine months is a very long period, I think,” Del Vecchio said. “But I’m very glad for this. The Afghan people had 25 years of war. It is very hard to begin again to live. I and my soldiers can help.”

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