Haji Mohmad's ice-cream shop in Kabul's rundown Carte Chaar district stays open until 10 p.m. To the shopkeeper, it's a key sign of progress.
"I get most of my customers after dusk," he says. "People feel secure enough to come out at night. That is a fairly new feeling in Kabul."
It's a feeling that Afghan officials attribute to the security provided by the 5,500-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). They would like to extend the foreign troop presence to other cities, particularly in the south and east, where a resurgent Taliban militia has staged numerous attacks.
But a mandate set by the UN and NATO limits ISAF to Kabul. So far, the US is the only foreign military presence - with two minor exceptions - outside the capital. The main US efforts are focused on fighting remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Now, Germany is offering to deploy some 230 troops to Kunduz, about 150 miles north - a move that would expand the reach of ISAF for the first time. Supporters see it as a small but important initial step. Before boots hit the ground, however, the UN must change the mandate, NATO must agree to expand operations, and the German parliament must give its blessing - steps that could take until December to complete.
Last week, NATO finished its assessment of the German plan, clearing the way for alliance approval, while German delegates at the UN circulated a draft proposal. But critics charge it may be too little, too late.
"The international community is not taking the security issues outside of Kabul seriously. They are responding with provincial reconstruction teams, which can give a false sense of security to Afghans and the Afghan government," says Paul Barker, the director in Afghanistan for CARE International.
According to a recent report by CARE, there is one peacekeeper for every 5,380 Afghans, whereas post-conflict zones like Kosovo, Bosnia, Croatia, and East Timor have had one peacekeeper per 65 people.
Provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs, are civilian-led military teams charged with working on high-profile infrastructure and reconstruction projects. The US runs two, and Britain and New Zealand have one each. The German team would take over the US-led PRT in Kunduz and primarily protect several hundred German aid workers building roads, schools, and hospitals.
PRT soldiers are armed, but may use deadly force only in self-defense or to protect civilian aid workers. They do not perform regular security patrols or resolve civil disputes. "PRTs cannot intervene in narcotic, warlord, or disarmament activities. Afghanistan's provinces need security forces for these issues," says Barnett Rubin of the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) in New York.
Supporters say the German public won't accept the expansion of troops unless it is in conjunction with rebuilding efforts. Mr. Barker says German officials are also motivated by trying to build goodwill with the US, while not contributing troops to the US-led occupation of Iraq.
"Germany feels that the [Afghan] reconstruction process is at a crucial point. The next steps are the preparation of the general elections in the summer of 2004 and the drafting of the new constitution. We want to make sure that these important steps can be realized, and we believe that providing the necessary security is vital - in Kabul, as well as in other provinces," says Andrea Berdesinski, a German government spokeswoman in Berlin.
The process for expanding the force could extend into 2004, which may be too late for local elections and the ratification of the constitution. Germany's UN proposal suggested changing the Afghan mandate in December, when it's up for renewal.
But the Afghan government seems willing to accept whatever it can get for security. Gen. Gul Nabi Ahmadzai, the chief of staff at the Afghan Ministry of Interior, says PRTs can be beneficial if they are used to train provincial police forces.
"Just the presence of some German troops in Kunduz will be enough to ward off the evildoers. It is a symbolic effort," says General Ahmadzai.