Allahuddin  /  AP
Afghan troops examine a destroyed vehicle at the site of a suicide bombing in Kandahar, Afghanistan on Sunday.
updated 6/4/2006 6:11:54 PM ET 2006-06-04T22:11:54

NATO will double the number of soldiers in southern Afghanistan when it takes over security there from U.S. troops next month, seeking to quash the worst rebel violence since the Taliban’s ouster, the NATO force commander said Sunday.

Lt. Gen. David Richards also said NATO troops will be more “people friendly” in an effort to win the support of the local population amid rising resentment over what many Afghans see as overly aggressive tactics by the separate U.S.-led coalition force.

There was no letup in the fighting in the south, meanwhile. More than two dozen people died in weekend violence, including four in a failed attempt to blow up the governor of Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban religious militia.

At a news conference in Kabul, Richards said the number of troops that the U.S.-led coalition has had in southern Afghanistan hasn’t been sufficient to deal with the surge in violence.

“They have been relatively short of troops, of boots on the ground,” said Richards, a British soldier who assumed command of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force a month ago.

He said the number of troops in the region will increase from an average of about 3,000 in recent years to about 6,000 when NATO takes on responsibility for the volatile region in July. He said the new force also will have more attack helicopters.

Change amid increased fighting
The changeover comes amid the most intense fighting in the south since a U.S.-led offensive toppled the Islamic hard-liners of the Taliban at the end of 2001. More than 400 people, mostly militants, have been killed since mid-May.

Observers in the south say support for foreign troops has waned in recent months, partly because of a large number of civilians killed mistakenly in coalition operations and also because of the increased presence of Taliban rebels.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly complained about what he considers the coalition’s overly aggressive tactics and last year demanded an end to airstrikes and house searches. Coalition commanders argued such methods are essential and have not stopped them.

Appearing on CNN’s “Late Edition” on Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that Karzai is urging U.S. forces to avoid actions that could damage support for the campaign against the Taliban.

“Of course, people are told to be careful, but it is a matter of war, a war zone, in which our soldiers are trying, as he said, jointly to root out the terrorists,” Rice said.

Richards said the security situation has deteriorated, but he expressed optimism the NATO force and new tactics can counter that trend.

“I have a different approach,” he said. “I want to get out much more on our feet in and among the villagers. ... We will gear our security operation around (building) more roads, irrigation, etc.”

High-speed convoys assailed
In that light, Richards also said foreign troops, including those from NATO, are alienating Afghans by driving too aggressively.

Many Afghans are angry that military convoys, especially U.S. ones, often pass through crowded areas at high speed and sometimes disregard road rules. The anger erupted into deadly riots in Kabul a week ago after a U.S. truck was involved in a fatal traffic accident.

Richards conceded that troops are often instructed to drive fast because it reduces the chances for attacks by suicide bombers or roadside bombs. But he said he has ordered NATO troops to show more respect to others on the road.

“We will accept more risk. I have made that very clear,” he said. “We cannot go on alienating the people in the way that I know is happening.”

General pledges ‘muscular’ response if needed
But Richards warned that his “people friendly” tactics have limits. If threatened, the NATO force will be tough, he said.

“When we need to be muscular — robust with those opposing us — we have all the capability we need and we will certainly do so,” he said.

The NATO-commanded force will have troops from 36 nations, but most of them are coming from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands.

The U.S. military has increased its force in Afghanistan in recent months from 18,000 to 23,000, with much of its operations focused on the eastern regions that border the tribal areas of Pakistan where Taliban and al-Qaida militants are believed to have bases.

With the NATO force increasing from around 9,000 soldiers to about 17,000 by next month, some U.S. troops are expected to withdraw. The U.S.-led coalition will retain control of the east, but Richards said he hoped that area also would soon come under his command.

He said having one force responsible for all of Afghanistan would give commanders more flexibility in moving troops around to deal with trouble spots.

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