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NATO: Afghan troop shortfall costing lives

/ Source: The Associated Press

NATO’s top commander renewed an appeal Tuesday for allies to fill gaps in the international military force in Afghanistan, warning that failure to send reinforcements was weakening the mission and jeopardizing the lives of soldiers fighting the Taliban.

Taliban guerrillas have proven much tougher than the alliance expected in 2003 when its first contingent of peacekeepers deployed to Afghanistan. Last year, fighting surged and commanders have warned that even fiercer combat can be expected if the insurgents launch a spring offensive against the Kabul government.

“We do not have adequate forces,” Gen. John Craddock told reporters at NATO’s military headquarters in southern Belgium. “It makes accomplishing the mission that more difficult,” he added. “It places every NATO soldier there at greater risk.”

Politicians in Canada, Britain, the United States and other nations with troops in southern Afghanistan have been irked by the reluctance of some European allies to commit extra troops to the 35,500-strong NATO force, and in particular to allow their troops to be deployed to the Taliban’s heartland in the south and east.

In Afghanistan, a police official said Tuesday that NATO and Afghan forces killed 22 Taliban fighters in separate clashes over the past few days in a southern Afghan province where hundreds of militants have gathered.

Few troops offered
Craddock said he was optimistic allies would come forward with additional contributions. However, a meeting of NATO defense ministers last week in Seville, Spain, produced only small offers.

Earlier on Tuesday, a Senate committee in Canada said the government should a consider withdrawing from Afghanistan unless NATO allies deliver additional troops.

Canada’s 2,500 troops play a key role in the front-line southern provinces and have suffered relatively high casualties. Craddock said any decision to pull them out would create a “terrible situation.”

Craddock said securing the right sort of specialized troops and equipment was more important than simply pouring in manpower.

He said the decision last month by the United States to extend the tour of more than 3,000 of its soldiers has given the force a much-needed mobile reserve. However, he said the force was still about 7 percent short of full strength.

He declined to give exact numbers, saying that could give important information to the Taliban. But officials at the meeting in Seville said NATO was looking for up to 2,500 additional ground troops.

“There has to be a coherent, simultaneous effort to secure and stabilize,” Craddock said in reply to French and German doubts raised in Seville about the need for more troops. “You can’t get long term development and reconstruction without security.”

More roadside bombs expected
Craddock said the high level of casualties sustained by the Taliban in clashes with NATO last year made it unlikely they would seek an all-out confrontation this spring. Instead, he noted they had returned to hit-and-run tactics with an increase in roadside bombs.

He said improvised explosive devices used by the insurgents were becoming more sophisticated, but were not yet as powerful as armor-piercing bombs used in Iraq which the U.S. military this week claimed to have traced to Iran.

Meanwhile, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said more than 300 British marines cleared “a stronghold of Taliban extremists” around a hydroelectric dam in the Kajaki district of Helmand province — a region that has been the target of Taliban attacks.

Provincial police chief Ghulam Nabi Malakhail said 15 Taliban fighters were killed in three days of fighting.

Elsewhere, fighting in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province killed seven Taliban militants, including a commander, Malakhail said. He said that NATO and Afghan forces suffered no casualties.