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Longer Afghan tours eyed for US forces

Top commander seeks extension for 1,200 troops

Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited US troops yesterday at Operating Base Tillman in Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. (JIM MANNION/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The top US commander in Afghanistan said yesterday he wants to extend the combat tours of 1,200 soldiers amid rising violence, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was "strongly inclined" to recommend a troop increase to President Bush if commanders believe it is needed.

Gates also said Pakistan must act to stem an increasing flow of Taliban fighters into Afghanistan as US military officials cited new evidence that the Pakistani military, which has long-standing ties to the Taliban movement, has turned a blind eye to the incursions.

The prospect of a troop increase in Afghanistan, at the same time Bush is ordering 21,500 more troops into Iraq, raises new questions about the military's ability to sustain its war-fighting on two major fronts. There now are about 24,000 US troops in Afghanistan, which Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, the senior American commander here, said is the highest since the war began in October 2001.

It also raises questions about the future course of the war in Afghanistan, which the United States is increasingly handing off to NATO forces. Of the 31,000 troops here under NATO command, about 11,000 are American. The United States has an additional 12,000 or 13,000 to hunt down Al Qaeda terrorists and to train the Afghan Army.

The number of insurgent attacks is up by 300 percent since September, when the Pakistani government put into effect a peace arrangement with tribal leaders in the north Waziristan area, along Afghanistan's eastern border, a US military intelligence officer told reporters traveling with Gates. The officer discussed the matter on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Eikenberry told reporters he has recommended to the Pentagon that 1,200 soldiers from the Second Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division -- which is about halfway through a scheduled four-month tour in eastern Afghanistan -- be ordered to stay through the end of the year.

That battalion is already scheduled to deploy to Iraq later this year, an illustration of how stretched US forces are by the two wars.

Eikenberry, who is due to leave his post on Jan. 21, said it appears the Taliban is readying a spring offensive to focus mainly in areas of southern Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kandahar and other urban centers. He also said he believed the Taliban would make renewed efforts to "get inside Kabul" and to attack border posts held by NATO and Afghan national forces.

He asserted that despite the Taliban's resurgence, "The enemy is not strong militarily. A lot of this has to do with the attempt to get psychological effects" -- to persuade ordinary Afghans that the US-backed government cannot deliver necessary services.

"Although it's going to be a violent spring and I would expect that we're going to have more violence into the summer, I'm absolutely confident that we're going to be able to dominate," Eikenberry said.

On his second overseas trip since taking over at the Pentagon last month, Gates was briefed on the problem of cross-border incursions by the Taliban and their use of havens in Pakistan to direct growing numbers of attacks across the border. "The border area is a problem," Gates told a news conference after meeting with President Hamid Karzai.

The US intelligence officer disclosed for the first time full-year statistics on insurgent attacks in Afghanistan. Suicide attacks in 2006 totaled 139, up from 27 in 2005, and the number of attacks with roadside bombs more than doubled, from 783 in 2005 to 1,677 last year. The number of what the military calls "direct attacks," meaning attacks by insurgents using small arms, grenades, and other weapons, surged from 1,558 in 2005 to 4,542 last year.