January 10, 2008 / 10:14 AM / 11 years ago

Afghanistan welcomes U.S. troop "mini-surge"

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan welcomed on Thursday U.S. plans to send an extra 3,000 troops to fight the Taliban insurgency, but Washington’s move highlights divisions between Western allies over how much to commit to the country.

U.S and Dutch soldiers drive along a dusty road in a village in Baluchi pass in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan November 1, 2007. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer welcomed the U.S. plans but stressed that a number of European allies had in recent months had also added forces there.

The Pentagon said on Wednesday U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was considering sending an additional 3,000 Marines to thwart any Taliban spring offensive, bringing to around 30,000 the number of American servicemen and women in Afghanistan.

Around half the U.S. contingent serves in a 40,000-strong NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), while the rest conduct missions ranging from counter-terrorism to reconstruction to training Afghan troops.

Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry, said the increase in troop numbers would help anti-insurgency operations as the new national army continued to grow.

“As we are in the fight together with the international community, the deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan is considered necessary in the current situation,” he said.

“(But) The Afghan National Army is the answer for the long-term security in Afghanistan to thwart internal and external threats to the country and to maintain the force balance,” he said, adding the number of trained soldiers would grow from 58,000 to 70,000 in the next two months.

Washington, stretched by last year’s troop surge in Iraq, has for months been trying in vain to persuade NATO allies to commit more combat troops to Afghanistan to take up the slack.

“CAN DO BETTER”

But European governments have been reluctant to increase their operations here and, wary of a big dip in domestic public support for their continued presence, have been scaling back.

“Our allies are not in a position to provide them (extra troops), so we are now looking at perhaps carrying a bit of that additional load,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said in Washington, adding most of the Marines would join British, Canadian and Dutch troops in the south.

“The idea is to get this in place to prevent, as we did last spring, another attempt by the Taliban to come back,” Morrell told reporters. “The timing is that they would be in place by April. This is a one-time seven-month deployment.”

However NATO’s de Hoop Scheffer pointed to recent smaller additions from countries such as France, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland — which on Wednesday announced it would add 400 troops and helicopters — to its existing 1,200-strong contingent.

“You cannot say the allies are not active enough, because they are active ... But I still think we can do better,” he told reporters at an event in Brussels, noting persistent shortfalls in NATO’s forces.

He also stressed the ultimate answer was not military but a long-term commitment to reconstruction and development.

“The solution for Afghanistan is not pouring in tens of thousands of forces,” he said.

While NATO says it thwarted last year’s attempted Taliban spring offensive, overall violence is up 27 percent over a year ago and has risen by 60 percent in the southern province of Helmand, the U.S. military said last month.

De Hoop Scheffer argued that much of the good news in the country — such as what he said was a doubling in the average Afghan personal income from 2001 — was being overshadowed.

Reporting by Hamid Shalizi; additional reporting by Andrew Gray in WASHINGTON and Mark John in BRUSSELS; writing by David Fox; Editing by Bill Tarrant

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