WASHINGTON -- President Bush vowed yesterday to make a sustained military and political effort to beat back resurgent Taliban forces as he turned his attention to Afghanistan and a conflict that has been overshadowed for the past couple of years by the larger war in Iraq.
Bush announced that he will continue a temporary increase of 3,200 US troops in Afghanistan "for the foreseeable future" and urged Congress to give him $11.8 billion more to accelerate training, reconstruction, and counternarcotics programs. He also insisted that NATO allies should drop restrictions on their forces in Afghanistan and join the fight against Islamic extremists.
"America and our allies are going to stand with these folks," the president said in an address to the American Enterprise Institute. "That's the message I want to deliver to the Afghanistan people today. Free debates are important. But our commitment is strong. We will train you, we will help you, and we will stand with you as you defend your new democracy."
The speech was the first Bush has devoted to Afghanistan during his second term, reflecting the shifting priorities in Washington as the Iraq war has turned increasingly violent and consumed more of the president's attention. But though Iraq dominated the debate, remnants of the ousted Taliban government have regrouped and launched a potent new challenge. Attacks on US, Afghan, and other coalition forces nearly tripled last year, and the Taliban by some estimates controls four times as much territory as in 2005.
"The focus on Iraq has definitely diminished not just the amount of resources that can be applied . . . but it's also a question of the time and attention that top policymakers can spend on the problem," said James Dobbins, a former special envoy to Afghanistan who now works as a national security analyst at the Rand Corp. "Iraq has tended to suck the air out of the system for the last couple of years."
White House aides said Bush has devoted a lot of time to Afghanistan but has come to understand that more needs to be done. The administration started a review of Afghanistan policy last summer and concluded in December that more troops, money, and diplomacy were necessary. Elements of the plan have been reported, but yesterday was the first time Bush laid them all out.
A 3,200-member brigade from the Army's 10th Mountain Division that was scheduled to come home in February will, instead, stay for another four months. And the Pentagon said this week that the 173d Airborne Brigade, originally slated to head to Iraq, will then replace it, increasing US troops in Afghanistan to 27,000. In his speech, Bush expressed a commitment to make that increase indefinite.
As part of his emergency war spending package sent to Congress this month, the president asked for $8.6 billion for training Afghan security forces, $1.4 billion for reconstruction, and $1.8 billion for drug-fighting and other activities.
Bush said yesterday that those funds will help increase the size of the Afghan national police from 61,000 to 82,000 and the army from 32,000 to 70,000 by the end of 2008. He also promised to rebuild another 1,000 miles of roads this year.
The goal, he said, will be to take the fight to the Taliban. "The snow is going to melt in the Hindu Kush mountains and when it does we can expect fierce fighting to continue," Bush said. "The Taliban and Al Qaeda are preparing to launch new attacks. Our strategy is not to be on the defense but to go on the offense. This spring there is going to be a new offensive in Afghanistan and it's going to be a NATO offensive."
But major NATO allies have so far resisted the sort of robust engagement Bush wants. With the exception of some French special forces that are leaving Afghanistan, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Turkey are not in the fight because of political limits on where and how they may operate.
"Allies must lift restrictions on the forces they do provide so NATO commanders have the flexibility they need to defeat the enemy where the enemy may make a stand," Bush said.