KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan is turning a new page in relations with the United States, an Afghan presidential spokesman said on Wednesday, as U.S. President Barack Obama ordered 17,000 more troops deployed to battle Taliban insurgents.
Obama, in his first major military decision as commander-in-chief, said the troop increase was “necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan,” but warned military means alone would not solve the problem.
Obama spoke to Afghan President Hamid Karzai overnight for the first time since he took office in Washington a month ago.
Ties between Kabul and Washington have been strained since Obama’s inauguration, with the new administration questioning Karzai’s ability to govern effectively and the Afghan president hitting back at the killing of civilians by foreign troops.
But after a telephone conversation overnight, Karzai’s spokesman said: “We have opened a new page.”
“Mr. Obama spoke with the president about various issues including steps for improving security in the region, equipment and training of the national army, further strengthening of bilateral relations, and the increase of forces was also discussed,” said presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada.
The reinforcements will take U.S. troop numbers to around 55,000, in addition to the 30,000 troops from 40 other mostly NATO countries already operating in Afghanistan.
The United States will pressure its allies to also send more troops at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Poland this week, but many European countries are wary of getting bogged down in Afghanistan and reluctant to let their troops engage in combat and take casualties due to domestic opposition to the war.
But NATO diplomats say up to 10,000 more troops could be required, as many as 3,000 of them from Europe, as short-term reinforcements to guard elections on August 20, regarded as a key milestone that Afghanistan must pass if it is to attain peace.
Italy’s foreign minister said his country was ready to increase its contingent by 500 to 2,800 by the end of April.
Some analysts however question the wisdom of sending more troops, arguing that a larger foreign military presence runs the risk of being seen as an occupying force. Others say a bigger force is not necessary to achieve Washington’s primary objective in Afghanistan — preventing al Qaeda using it as a base.
In committing more U.S. troops, Obama is staking much political capital on a conflict in a notoriously ungovernable country that overcame both the British and Soviet empires at the height of their powers in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Most of the new U.S. troops, including some 8,000 Marines and 4,000 soldiers from an armored brigade, will be sent to southern Afghanistan in an attempt to break the stalemate between mostly British, Canadian and Dutch troops there and Taliban insurgents.
Military commanders say they do not now have enough troops to hold territory in southern Afghanistan once they have cleared Taliban from an area, and until the Afghan army and police can be brought up to strength, reinforcements are needed to fill that space, allow development to take place and win over the people.
But far from winning hearts and minds, polls suggest international troops are becoming increasingly unpopular in Afghanistan, with the chief cause of resentment the steady flow of Afghan civilians killed in U.S. and NATO air strikes.
More than 2,100 civilians were killed in Afghanistan last year, 40 percent more than 2007, the United Nations said on Tuesday, and a quarter of all civilian casualties, 552 people, died as a result of air strikes by U.S. and NATO-led forces.
More than seven years after U.S.-led troops toppled the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda leaders behind the September 11 attacks, U.S. officials admit the United States and its allies are not winning in Afghanistan.
Obama said Afghanistan had “not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires.” The U.S. president pledged to also use diplomacy and development to help end the Taliban insurgency.
Italy, as president of the G8, said it wanted to organize a conference in June, bringing together the world’s richest countries and regional powers Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, India, China and Turkey among others to find ways of bringing stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Italy also wants to involve Iran, which shares a border with Afghanistan. “Italy is considering how to involve Iran, not whether to involve Iran,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told a news conference in the Afghan capital.
Iran shares a long border with Afghanistan through which drugs readily flow. While Tehran is at odds with the West over its nuclear program, diplomats say Iran shares an interest in peace in Afghanistan and must be involved negotiations.
Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Alex Richardson