Afghan coalition is now more optimistic

Plans to deploy thousands more police, soldiers

By Anne Flaherty
Associated Press / February 6, 2010

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ISTANBUL - NATO and US officials are putting a more optimistic face on the eight-year-old Afghanistan war, suggesting that tens of thousands more foreign troops can finally turn the corner against a growing Taliban insurgency.

“After a difficult year in 2009, we now see a new momentum in 2010,’’ NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said yesterday. He had just completed strategy discussions that looked ahead to an expected push against Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan this spring.

However, despite the upbeat outlook provided this week by General Stanley McChrystal, Fogh Rasmussen, and other officials attending a two-day NATO meeting, the allied effort in Afghanistan faces serious challenges.

Among them are a shortfall in outside trainers to help Afghan security forces improve to a level that will enable them to begin taking over from foreigners. While countries have pledged to send more troops, some 4,000 more trainers and mentors are needed to work with Afghan security forces.

The NATO meeting was the first of its kind since President Obama announced plans to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year, with an eye on withdrawals starting in July 2011. Other countries have agreed to provide an additional 10,000, which would push force levels over 140,000 and mark the biggest single security push since the war began after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

With US forces streaming in, McChrystal, the coalition commander in Afghanistan, told reporters this week that the security situation was still grave but no longer deteriorating. That was his most optimistic assessment since arriving last summer, when he said things were more difficult than he had expected and getting worse.

At the same time, NATO unofficially estimates that the number of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan has grown from fewer than 400 in 2004 to about 25,000 last year and nearly 30,000 now.

Major world powers decided last week that Afghanistan’s military should be boosted to 171,600 by October 2011, up from the current 98,000 troops. They also decided to increase police numbers to 134,000 by that date, from about 90,000 today.

“As more Afghans join their nation’s security forces, we have to be able to train and equip them to fight as quickly as possible,’’ said US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Gates announced yesterday that the United States will sell a version of its mine-resistant vehicles to its allies. In some cases, the vehicles will be provided to countries that cannot afford to pay for them.

The vehicles have proven helpful in protecting against roadside bombs.