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US commander wants more troops against Taliban surge

AFP | January 17, 2007 
Jim Mannion

The senior US commander in Afghanistan pressed for more troops to confront a major surge in Taliban attacks, notably out of Pakistan, as he briefed visiting US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry pointed to a doubling in the last month in the number of cross-border incidents along a stretch of border opposite a Pakistani tribal area where the Islamabad government struck a peace agreement with tribal leaders last September.

He predicted more violence to come after meeting here with Gates, who flew into Afghanistan late Monday to review the situation in meetings with military chiefs and President Hamid Karzai.

"I would expect that the enemy will have its main effort against southern Afghanistan and what we'll see is more violence in the south," Eikenberry told reporters.

He anticipated terror attacks in Kandahar and other urban centers, attempts to restrict coalition and Afghan forces moving about, and attacks in southern district centres and outlying areas.

Insurgents were also expected to support a thrust in the south with attacks on border posts in the east and attempts at terror attacks in Kabul.

"The enemy is not strong militarily. A lot of this has to do with attempts to psychological effects," he said.

"Although its going to be a violent spring and I would expect we'll have more violence into the summer, I'm also confident we are going to be able to dominate."

Eikenberry said US force levels in Afghanistan were now at an all-time high of 23,000 to 24,000 troops and he did not expect that to be reduced next year or in 2008.

He said he had requested that one of his infantry battalions, with a force of 1,200, be retained through 2007.

A US military official identified it as a battalion of the 10th Mountain Brigade deployed for four months to beef up the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force while it awaited reinforcements promised by NATO.

It had been slated to move on to Iraq.

Eikenberry said the 33,000-strong ISAF was 10 percent short of the troops promised by NATO. A US military official said it was also short of aviation support, logistics and intelligence elements.

US military officials who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity provided a more detailed picture of the security situation that shows an even greater spike in Taliban violence over the past year.

The number of direct fire attacks soared from 1,558 in 2005 to 4,542 in 2006; improvised explosive device attacks were up from 783 to 1,677 in the same period; and the number of suicide attacks rose from 27 in 2005 to 139 in 2006.

Officials said cross-border attacks climbed nearly fourfold in southeastern Khost and Paktika provinces in the 60 days after a Pakistani accord with tribal leaders in North Waziristan in September.

The officials said some border incidents had been in full view of Pakistani military posts on the border who did nothing to engage the insurgents or stop them moving into Afghanistan.

One notable exception, officials said, was Pakistani cooperation in an air strike that killed Aktar Osmani, the Taliban's number three commander, shortly after he crossed the border into Afghanistan's Helmand province.

"This is a problem that has a long history," said Eikenberry. "Clearly, it is a problem that there is no easy solution to, that we can expect to see any kind of results in weeks or months."

The general said military relations with Pakistan were good. "But I'd also emphasize that we do have a challenge right now with command control of Taliban forces that does have to be addressed."

Eikenberry said one reason the Taliban has been able to mount its biggest offensive since their ouster in December 2001 is that they have been able to establish a command structure inside both Pakistan and AFghanistan.

"And they need to be interdicted," he added.

Citing an example, a military official said Taliban leader Mullah Omar was believed to be operating from the Pakistani city of Quetta.


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