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NATO fears Afghans may turn toward Taliban

KABUL, Afghanistan -- NATO's top commander in Afghanistan warned yesterday that a majority of Afghans would probably switch their allegiance to resurgent Taliban militants if their lives show no visible improvements in the next six months.

General David Richards, a British officer who commands NATO's 32,000 troops in the country, said he would like to have about 2,500 additional troops to form a reserve battalion to help speed up reconstruction and development efforts.

He said the south of the country, where NATO troops have fought their most intense battles this year, has been ``broadly stabilized," which gives the alliance an opportunity to launch projects there. If it doesn't, he estimates, about 70 percent of Afghans could switch their allegiance from NATO to the Taliban.

``They will say, `We do not want the Taliban, but then we would rather have that austere and unpleasant life [this] might involve than another five years of fighting,' " Richards said in an interview.

``We have created an opportunity" after the intense fighting that left more than 500 militants dead in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, he said. ``If we do not take advantage of this, then you can pour an additional 10,000 troops next year and we would not succeed because we would have lost by then the consent of the people."

NATO extended its security mission last week to all of Afghanistan, taking command of 12,000 US troops in the war-battered country's east. The mission is the biggest ground combat operation in NATO history and gives Richards command of the largest number of US troops under a foreign leader since World War II.

About 8,000 US troops will continue to function outside NATO, tracking Al Qaeda terrorists, helping train Afghan security forces, and doing reconstruction work.

Afghanistan is going through its worst bout of violence since the US-led invasion removed the Taliban regime from power five years ago. The Taliban has made a comeback in the south and east of the country and is seriously threatening Western attempts to stabilize the country after almost three decades of war.

Taliban militants have acknowledged adopting the suicide attacks commonly used by insurgents in Iraq, launching 78 suicide bombings across Afghanistan this year, killing almost 200 people, NATO said yesterday.

There were only two suicide attacks in 2003 and six in 2004, according to Seth Jones, an analyst for the US-based RAND Corporation. Jones said there were 21 in 2005.

Richards, who will lead the NATO forces in Afghanistan until US General Dan K. McNeil takes over in February, said the Taliban may lose support among Afghans if it continues the attacks.

``The very cowardly use of suicide bombers, the tragic use of suicide bombers, reveals weakness on the part of the Taliban, not strength," he said.

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