Rumsfeld spoke during a brief visit to Afghanistan on Sunday that coincided with an increase in violent attacks by the ousted Taliban militia, and shortly after one of the biggest battles with the Taliban for at least 18 months.

Scores of residents demonstrated in Kabul on Sunday against the presence of US-led forces in Afghanistan and some, unhappy with Afghan President Hamid Karzai's failure to bring security to many parts of the country, called for the return of the Taliban.

The Afghan government, the United Nations and aid agencies have long appealed for peacekeepers to be deployed outside Kabul, and hopes this might happen have risen since NATO took command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in August.

"I certainly agree that an expansion of ISAF would be a good thing," Rumsfeld said in response to a question at a joint news conference with Karzai.

"In the last analysis, the security in Afghanistan is the responsibility of the Afghan people"

Donald Rumsfeld,
US defence secretary

"For whatever reason, there have not been countries lining up to expand ISAF, but it strikes me that ... there is at least the possibility of somewhat of an expansion.

"But in the last analysis, the security in Afghanistan is the responsibility of the Afghan people," Rumsfeld said.
 
About 12,500 US and allied forces are searching Afghanistan for remnants of the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies. Another 5,000 peacekeeping troops are stationed in Kabul under NATO command.

Daily attacks

On his last visit to Afghanistan in May, Rumsfeld said the United States had moved from a period of major combat operations to one of stabilisation and reconstruction.

Since then, however, the Taliban have staged almost daily attacks against government posts, aid workers and US-led forces. Large parts of the south and the east of the country are off limits to foreign aid workers.

Rumsfeld insisted security had improved each time he visited the country.

He made no mention of Washington's plans to increase aid to Afghanistan, which President George Bush is expected to announce soon. The Bush administration said in July it was preparing a $1 billion aid package for schools, roads and other projects.

The United States spends $900 million a month on American military operations in Afghanistan and $900 million a year for economic assistance and training the Afghan national army. 
 
Tribal assembly postponed

Meanwhile President Hamid Karzai has postponed by two months a grand tribal assembly to approve a new Afghan constitution, which will pave the way for elections next year, his spokesman said on Sunday.

Each province of Afghanistan will elect representatives to the loya jirga, with seats reserved for women, minorities and representatives of the millions of Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan and Iran.

"President Karzai today signed a decree to postpone the loya jirga to December," spokesman Jawed Ludin told French news agency AFP.

He said the decree was signed following advice from the Constitutional Commission.

An agreement reached in Bonn after the 2001 ouster of the Taliban regime laid out the steps to mark Afghanistan's progress towards democracy to culminate in elections in June 2004.

The agreement allowed for the loya jirga to convene in December, but the United Nations proposed October instead, to which the Afghan government agreed.

Unread constitution

The Constitutional Commission in charge of the process last month asked for more time to complete its work, which only began on 15 July. The draft constitution has just been finalised.

Commission official Farooq Wardak said late last month that preparations for the loya jirga would take up to four months, noting that the election of 500 members could take some time.

Each province of Afghanistan will elect representatives to the loya jirga, with seats reserved for women, minorities and representatives of the millions of Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan and Iran.

The draft has not yet been made public, which has sparked complaints from citizens curious how they can comment on a document they have not read.