NATO augments Afghan war force

Promises 7,000 additional troops

By Robert Burns
Associated Press / December 5, 2009

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BRUSSELS - NATO allies will bolster the American troop surge in Afghanistan by sending at least 7,000 soldiers of their own, officials said yesterday in pledges that US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described as crucial to turning the tide in the stalemated war.

The promises were made as US Marines and Afghan troops launched the first offensive since President Obama announced a 30,000-troop American increase. The Marines and Afghan forces struck Taliban communications and supply lines yesterday in an insurgent stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

In another war development, US officials said the Obama administration may expand missile strikes on Al Qaeda and the Taliban inside Pakistan and will focus on training Pakistan’s forces in a border area where militants have been aiding the Afghan insurgency.

In Washington, Bryan Whitman, Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday’s offensive was a continuation of operations, not a direct result of Obama’s new war strategy. But, he added, the assault was “consistent with the strategy that the president laid out.’’

Hundreds of Marines were dropped by helicopter and MV-22 Osprey aircraft behind Taliban lines in the northern end of the Now Zad Valley of Helmand Province, scene of heavy fighting last summer, according to Major William Pelletier, Marine spokesman.

In Brussels, Clinton told allied foreign ministers that it was essential that contributions to the war effort be provided as quickly as possible. She thanked Italy for its announcement that it will send an additional 1,000 troops and Britain for its pledge of another 500, but she said nonmilitary assistance is equally important.

“The need for additional forces is urgent, but their presence will not be indefinite,’’ she told the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest political group.

NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark, told reporters at the organization’s headquarters that still more NATO forces might be sent, suggesting there would be “more to come.’’

Also, Admiral James Stavridis, the top NATO and US commander in Europe, said in an interview that he expects several thousand more non-US troops might be added to the 7,000.

“What we are all underlining to potential troop contributors is that we are truly asking for emphasis in the training area,’’ Stavridis said.

The transformation of Afghanistan’s army and police is critical to fulfill Obama’s intention to begin pulling out American units 18 months from now.

According to a copy of Clinton’s prepared remarks to the closed-door NATO meeting, she told the ministers that “the pace, size, and scope of the drawdown will be predicated on the situation on the ground.’’

“If things are going well, a larger number of forces could be removed from more areas,’’ she said. “If not, the size and speed of the drawdown will be adjusted accordingly.’’

Afghanistan’s security forces have been hobbled by a lack of training and resources, but US officials hope to bolster their ability by sending them out with American and allied troops into battle zones.

At least 150 Afghan troops joined about 1,000 Marines in yesterday’s offensive in Helmand Province, said a spokesman for the Afghan governor there, Daood Ahmadi. He said the bodies of four slain Taliban had been recovered and more than 300 mines and roadside bombs turned up by last evening.

The new offensive aims to cut off the Taliban communication routes through Helmand and disrupt their supply lines, especially those providing explosives for the numerous lethal roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices, that litter the area, known by Marines as “IED Alley.’’

In Washington, there has been growing discussion of a need to expand the use of airborne missile-equipped drones in volatile regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor.

The CIA has already accelerated the pace of its drone attacks in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas this year.