By Mark Egan
WOLFEBORO, N.H., Jan 2 (Reuters) - Republican presidential contender Rudy Giuliani on Wednesday called for doubling U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan as part of a broader military expansion.
"One of the things we should do ... immediately, we should double the number of our troops, our American-led combat troops in Afghanistan," the former New York mayor said in a speech at a World War Two museum less than a week before New Hampshire holds its nominating primary.
"We need to bring a surge to Afghanistan and make it effective right now," he said, referring to the increase of U.S. troops in Iraq credited with dampening violence there.
The United States has 26,000 troops in Afghanistan. Around half of them serve in a 40,000-strong NATO-led force with the task of stabilizing Afghanistan while the rest perform a range of missions from counter-terrorism to training Afghan soldiers.
Giuliani’s proposal stands in marked contrast to the policy of President George W. Bush’s Republican administration.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month about another 7,500 troops were required in Afghanistan but he has made clear Washington wants other NATO nations to provide the vast majority of those forces.
Giuliani, whose support has dipped nationally and in New Hampshire ahead of Tuesday’s primary which will help decide who replaces Bush after November’s election, said a troop surge in Afghanistan would help find al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, rout a resurgent Taliban there and help "stabilize the entire region."
Giuliani also called for a broader increase in the size of the U.S. military.
"We should increase the size of our military, right away. We should increase it by 10 new combat-ready brigades for the Army, that should be done now, and if more troops are necessary, we should do additional increases," he said.
He also said the Air Force should be bolstered with next generation fighter planes, that the Marines should number "at least 200,000" and the Navy should have at least 300 ships.
The Bush administration has already launched a program to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps.
Under that plan, the Army should add six new combat brigades and eight support brigades and have a total of 547,000 soldiers. The total strength of the Marine Corps should increase to 202,000.
The U.S. Navy currently has about 280 ships.
Giuliani’s speech came one day before the first contest to pick the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees takes place in Iowa.
Giuliani has not made a major push in the early voting states, preferring to concentrate on larger states that hold primaries on Feb. 5.
New polls show his lead declining over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, U.S. Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Polls in New Hampshire show Giuliani running a distant third behind McCain and Romney. (Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington; editing by David Wiessler)