WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Thursday the United States would keep higher troop levels in Afghanistan in anticipation of fierce fighting against the Taliban this spring after the most violent year since the hard-line group was ousted.
He called on NATO to provide additional troops and equipment when needed to ensure success in Afghanistan, and to lift restrictions on where and how their forces can fight to give commanders flexibility.
“The alliance was founded on this principle: An attack on one is an attack on all,” Bush said in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute.
He also said he had been “very clear” with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that more action was needed to eradicate poppy cultivation, which had shown a “marked increase” last year and was helping the Taliban buy weapons.
Bush said he was asking the U.S. Congress for $11.8 billion over the next two years for Afghanistan to help “this young democracy survive.”
The Pentagon had previously announced that a U.S. Army brigade of 3,200 troops will go to Afghanistan instead of Iraq to maintain higher troop levels, which Bush said would be sustained “for the foreseeable future.”
The United States has about 27,000 troops in Afghanistan, of which about 15,000 are in the NATO force and the rest conduct missions ranging from counter-terrorism to training Afghan forces.
“Across Afghanistan last year, the number of roadside bomb attacks almost doubled, direct fire attacks on international forces almost tripled, and suicide bombings grew nearly five-fold,” Bush said.
“The snow is going to melt in the Hindu Kush Mountains, and when it does we can expect fierce fighting to continue. The Taliban and al Qaeda are preparing to launch new attacks.”
Bush said it was important to increase cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Taliban and al Qaeda fighters were hiding in remote regions he called “wilder than the Wild West.”
Democrats have long criticized the Bush administration as too focused on going to war in Iraq and not enough on finding al Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden who are believed to be hiding in the remote Afghan-Pakistan border area.
“The Bush administration took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, leaving a deteriorating situation to worsen and Osama bin Laden on the loose more than five years after 9/11,” said Stacie Paxton, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. “While ignoring Afghanistan, President Bush has focused on escalating the war in Iraq.”
Bush is bolstering the anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan at the same time he is sending 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq, a decision for which he has drawn sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. Congress as well as some of his Republican allies.
Unlike their response to Bush sending additional troops to Iraq, Democratic lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said they supported having more troops in Afghanistan.
NATO, U.S. and Taliban commanders have warned of an increase of fighting in the spring after the bloodiest year since the Taliban were ousted by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001.
“This spring there’s going to be a new offensive in Afghanistan, and it’s going to be a NATO offensive, and that’s part of our strategy — relentless in our pressure,” Bush said.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Steve Holland