U.S. Afghan envoy Holbrooke in Kabul for talks

KABUL Sun Apr 5, 2009 3:07am EDT

KABUL (Reuters) - The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan has flown to Kabul for talks with Afghan and U.S. officials, the U.S. military said on Sunday, the day after NATO agreed to boost troop numbers ahead of key presidential elections.

Richard Holbrooke, whose mandate also covers Pakistan, is making his second visit in his new role, at a time when violence in Afghanistan has reached its highest level since the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

Some 70,000 foreign troops are locked in a stalemate with militants mainly in the south and east of the country.

A summit of NATO leaders agreed to deploy 3,000 additional troops to help provide security for August 20 presidential elections, which are seen as a key test of U.S. success in a mission which President Barack Obama has made a centerpiece of his foreign policy.

Despite U.S. appeals, and Obama's efforts to leverage his enormous popularity in Europe, the summit saw no new long-term commitments of combat troops to limit what many analysts see as an increasing "Americanization" of the international military effort in Afghanistan.

More than half of the some 70,000 foreign soldiers already in Afghanistan are from the United States and this balance will tip further when thousands more soldiers Obama has ordered to Afghanistan arrive in the country.

The troops pledged by NATO members on Saturday would be on short-term assignments and some 2,000 additional personnel will be deployed to train Afghan security forces.

Obama last month unveiled a new strategy for the conflict in Afghanistan with an emphasis on al Qaeda and Taliban cells in neighboring Pakistan, which has been targeted by militants, and engagement with western Afghanistan's neighbor Iran.

Holbrooke met with an Iranian delegate at a summit on Afghanistan at The Hague last week.

Though their meeting was not substantive, it signaled a thawing of relations after decades without formal diplomatic ties and the possibility of cooperation on efforts to tackle drug trafficking and the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Within Afghanistan, the administration aims to bolster the government and Afghan security forces, and seek possible dialogue with Taliban outside the ideological core of the movement.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul declined to comment on Holbrooke's visit.

(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)