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New troops will turn tide on Taliban: U.S. military
KABUL (Reuters) - The top U.S. military officer said on Sunday extra troops being sent to Afghanistan this year would start to turn the tide against the Taliban-led insurgency that has been gaining ground for three years.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, was visiting Kabul with U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke a day after NATO agreed to boost troop numbers before Afghanistan's presidential election in August.
NATO leaders agreed at a summit on Saturday to deploy 3,000 more troops to help provide security for the August 20 election, the key test of U.S. success in a mission that President Barack Obama has made a centerpiece of his foreign policy.
The NATO reinforcements will be on top of 17,000 extra U.S. troops due in the country by July and 4,000 American soldiers due to arrive before September to train Afghan forces. They will join about 70,000 international troops already in Afghanistan.
"I am convinced that the additional military capability will certainly start to allow us to turn the tide," Mullen told a news conference alongside Holbrooke. Most of the new troops will be sent to the south, the heartland of Taliban support.
"This year is critical. Every year is, but I believe 2009 is absolutely vital and certainly could be decisive," Mullen said.
After U.S.-led forces drove out the Taliban in 2001 for harboring al Qaeda leaders behind the September 11 attacks on the United States, Taliban leaders drew back to havens inside Pakistan's tribal areas, regrouped and launched an insurgency that has grown steadily since mid-2005.
"The trends in the south and the east for the last three years are all going in the wrong direction," Mullen said.
Obama's new strategy, unveiled last month, puts new emphasis on diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan's neighbors and regional powers as well as more support for economic development.
Holbrooke said he had met fellow special envoys from NATO countries as well as representatives from regional powers Russia, China and India in the German city of Munich.
"I was gratified to see that, among a group of countries that have widely divergent views on other issues, that there was a consensus and the consensus was simple stability in Afghanistan is in all our interests," Holbrooke said.
Building on that consensus was important, Holbrooke said, since many of the regional countries had been involved in Afghanistan in the past and "every country is suspicious of everyone else."
"The issue is to have support for Afghanistan which doesn't amount to a 21st century version of the Great Game," he said, referring to 19th-century competition over Afghanistan between imperial Russia and Britain.
The overriding issue in Afghanistan this year is the presidential election which will test continued public faith in Afghan democracy as well as NATO's ability to bring security.
Now that most parties have concede President Hamid Karzai could stay in office beyond a May 21 constitutional deadline until the August election, focus is turning toward making sure he does not unfairly use his position to campaign.
The United States, Holbrooke said, would "press for a level playing field, free fair and open elections ... we will neither support nor oppose any individual candidate including the incumbent." he said "We're just not going to do that."
(Editing by Andrew Dobbie)
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