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Afghan army starts own surge in south Afghanistan

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan is sending 8,000 to 10,000 troops to its most volatile southern provinces, where U.S. and NATO commanders complain of having too few Afghans to back them up, the Afghan Defense Minister said Saturday.

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama, who has set a new strategy for the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, said an extra 30,000 troops will be deployed there and that the process of U.S. withdrawal will begin in July 2011.

U.S. and British commanders complain the Afghan army and police have fielded far too few troops in the main battlefields, especially southern Helmand province, where 10,000 U.S. Marines and 9,000 British troops vastly outnumber their Afghan allies.

Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told Reuters about 8,000 to 10,000 additional Afghan troops will deploy in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar, by far the deadliest areas for foreign forces since the war started in 2001.

“At the moment our effort is concentrated on sending more Afghan national army to Helmand and Kandahar and the overall south. So we will be adding very soon 44 companies which will be added to each battalion,” Wardak said.

A commando battalion will also leave for Helmand next month.

The Afghan army has been expanding for the past year but calls from Washington and NATO for more Afghan soldiers on the ground to work alongside almost 110,000 foreign troops have intensified as foreign casualties soar.

In the last 12 days 6,000 new recruits have joined the army, Wardak said, putting him well on track to meet a target to expand the number of soldiers to 134,000 from 97,000, by autumn 2010.

“We do hope that we will grow further, if the last objective is that we should replace all the international forces then we have to go to that figure of 240 (thousand),” Wardak said.

Obama’s strategy calls for more trainers to speed up the expansion of the Afghan army and police.

The head of the U.S. and NATO training mission said last week he aimed to expand the Afghan army and police by 50 percent to 282,000 in total before U.S. troops begin leaving in mid-2011, although he acknowledged the target was probably too ambitious.

“ENABLERS” NEEDED BEFORE WITHDRAWAL

Washington needs Afghan forces to be able to take over so its troops can leave. The White House has played down any suggestion that a hard deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw has been set and has stressed the July 2011 date marks the beginning of a process, which will depend on conditions on the ground.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, re-elected in an August 20 vote heavily tainted by fraud, said at his inauguration that Afghanistan would aim to take over security within five years.

Wardak said while this objective was achievable, it rested on how much investment the Afghan army would get from the West for “enablers” for the army, such as air support and reconnaissance.

Last month the U.S. military gave Afghanistan 20 refurbished cargo planes, to arrive over the next two years, boosting the Afghan air force’s aircraft to 40, including nine helicopters.

“It will all depend on how the international community will help us in providing us the enablers. At the moment we do have the lead of 60 percent of the operations, but with some enablers we do rely on the ISAF forces,” Wardak said.

“If we do get the enablers then we will be able to conduct independent operations.”

Asked if Afghanistan would benefit from more U.S. troops, beyond the 30,000 earmarked by Washington, Wardak said the growth of Afghan troops was more important.

“I do believe strongly that the only sustainable way to secure Afghanistan is to enable the Afghans themselves, it is much more cost effective, it is less politically complex and it will also save lives for our friends and allies.”

Reporting by Golnar Motevalli; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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