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U.S. Afghan commander wants longer tours

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday the United States must engage Pakistan in talks to curb an increasing flow of Taliban fighters across the border into southern and eastern Afghanistan. He did not rule out increasing U.S. forces in the country.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates (C) vi
Defense Secretary Robert Gates meets U.S. troops in Afghanistan on Tuesday during a visit to Forward Operating Base Tillman, a military outpost near the village of Lawara close to the Pakistani border. Clashes between Taliban insurgents and U.S. and Afghan troops have been on the rise. Jim Mannion / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Tuesday he wants to extend the combat tours of 1,200 soldiers amid rising violence, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was “strongly inclined” to recommend a troop increase to President Bush if commanders believe it is needed.

Gates also said Pakistan must act to stem an increasing flow of Taliban fighters into Afghanistan as U.S. military officials cited new evidence that the Pakistani military, which has long-standing ties to the Taliban movement, has turned a blind eye to the incursions.

The prospect of a troop increase in Afghanistan, at the same time Bush is ordering 21,500 more troops into Iraq, raises new questions about the military’s ability to sustain its war-fighting on two major fronts. There now are about 24,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the senior American commander here, said is the highest since the war began in October 2001.

It also raises questions about the future course of the war in Afghanistan, which the United States is increasingly handing off to NATO forces. Of the 31,000 troops here under NATO command, about 11,000 are American. The United States has an additional 12,000 or 13,000 to hunt down al-Qaida terrorists and to train the Afghan army.

300 percent more attacks
The number of insurgent attacks is up by 300 percent since September, when the Pakistani government put into effect a peace arrangement with tribal leaders in the north Waziristan area, along Afghanistan’s eastern border, a U.S. military intelligence officer told reporters traveling with Gates. The officer discussed the matter on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Eikenberry told reporters he has recommended to the Pentagon that 1,200 soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division — which is about halfway through a scheduled four-month tour in eastern Afghanistan — be ordered to stay through the end of the year.

Fears of ‘a violent spring’
That battalion is already scheduled to deploy to Iraq later this year, an illustration of how stretched U.S. forces are by the two wars.

Eikenberry, who is due to leave his post on Jan. 21, said it appears the Taliban is readying a spring offensive to focus mainly in areas of southern Afghanistan, particularly in the city of Kandahar and other urban centers. He also said he believed the Taliban would make renewed efforts to “get inside Kabul” and to attack border posts held by NATO and Afghan national forces.

He asserted that despite the Taliban’s resurgence, “The enemy is not strong militarily. A lot of this has to do with the attempt to get psychological effects” — to persuade ordinary Afghans that the U.S.-backed government cannot deliver necessary services.

“Although it’s going to be a violent spring and I would expect that we’re going to have more violence into the summer, I’m absolutely confident that we’re going to be able to dominate,” Eikenberry said.

On his second overseas trip since taking over at the Pentagon last month, Gates was briefed on the problem of cross-border incursions by the Taliban and their use of havens in Pakistan to direct growing numbers of attacks across the border.

“The border area is a problem,” Gates told a news conference after meeting with President Hamid Karzai. “There are more attacks coming across the border, (and) there are al-Qaida networks operating on the Pakistani side of the border. And these are issues that we clearly will have to pursue with the Pakistani government.”

Karzai pledges crackdown
Karzai acknowledged the upswing in Taliban attacks and vowed to deal them a heavy blow in the months ahead.

The U.S. intelligence officer disclosed for the first time full-year statistics on insurgent attacks in Afghanistan. Suicide attacks in 2006 totaled 139, up from 27 in 2005, and the number of attacks with roadside bombs more than doubled, from 783 in 2005 to 1,677 last year. The number of what the military calls “direct attacks,” meaning attacks by insurgents using small arms, grenades and other weapons, surged from 1,558 in 2005 to 4,542 last year.

The officer noted that some of the increase can be explained by the fact that U.S., NATO and Afghan forces conducted more offensive operations in more areas last year, but the officer said the insurgents also have begun to launch more sophisticated — and in some case, more coordinated — attacks.

Proof of Taliban crossing border
The intelligence officer said U.S. forces have collected firsthand evidence of Taliban fighters crossing the border unimpeded virtually within shouting distance of a Pakistani-controlled border post that American forces call Red Castle.

U.S. troops at a nearby post known as Forward Operating Base Tillman contacted the Pakistanis at Red Castle numerous times to alert them to the Taliban moving on foot and to request they be stopped, but the Pakistanis did not act, two military intelligence officers said.

Such situations are common, one of the intelligence officers said.

On a cold but mostly sunny afternoon, Gates flew by Black Hawk helicopter to the Tillman outpost, named for Pat Tillman, the Army Ranger and former pro football player who was killed by U.S. gunfire in a battle near the outpost in April 2004. An Army investigation concluded that U.S. soldiers shot Tillman after mistaking him for the enemy.

Gates shook hands with some of the 160 U.S. soldiers stationed at Tillman, which rests between a series of 6,000-foot mountain ridges. On the ground for only about 20 minutes, Gates was shown the view eastward, across the border, and then he climbed back into his chopper and flew to Kabul.