President Bush said Thursday that NATO allies need to supply more soldiers to Afghanistan and be willing to send them into the most violent battles with Taliban fighters, who are gearing up for a new spring offensive.
“When our commanders on the ground say to our respective countries we need additional help, our NATO countries must provide it,” Bush said.
Flush with money from heroin-producing poppy crops, Taliban fighters have proven much tougher than NATO expected when it deployed its first contingent of peacekeepers there in 2003.
“I’ve ordered an increase in U.S. forces in Afghanistan,” Bush said in a speech that comes five years after U.S.-led forces toppled Afghanistan’s repressive Taliban regime. “We’ve extended the stay of 3,200 troops now in the country, for four months, and we’ll deploy a replacement force that will sustain this increase for the foreseeable future.”
The Pentagon announced on Wednesday that 3,200 soldiers scheduled to go to Iraq would be sent to Afghanistan instead, replacing the troops extended for four months. Deployment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, would keep the force at the current strength of 27,000 — the highest of the war.
About 15,000 of the American troops in Afghanistan are serving in the NATO-led force, which now totals about 36,000. The other 12,000 are special operations forces or are training Afghan troops.
Calling poppy cultivation a threat to a fragile democracy, Bush implored President Hamid Karzai to address the marked increase in harvests last year, after a decline in 2005.
“I have made my concerns to President Karzai pretty clear — not pretty clear, very clear — and that in order for him to gain the confidence of his people, and the confidence of the world, he’s got to do something about it, with our help,” Bush said in an hour-long speech sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.
Gates returns from trip
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, just back from a trip that included a stop in Pakistan, said the planned offensive in Afghanistan was an attempt to react ahead of an expected seasonal Taliban offensive.
“What we want to do this spring is have this spring offensive be our offensive and, and have the initiative in our hands rather than reacting to them,” he said.
Asked whether he had talked with Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf about the hunt for al-Qaida fugitive Osama bin Laden, Gates said he would not “get into specifics” about their talks.
But, said Gates, “If I were Osama bin Laden, I’d keep looking over my shoulder.”
The call for NATO nations to supply more soldiers and equipment to fight the Taliban was a nudge to Germany and other NATO nations that have kept their troops out of the most violent parts of Afghanistan.
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.
“Allies must lift restrictions on the forces they do provide so NATO commanders have the flexibility they need to defeat the enemy wherever the enemy may make a stand,” Bush said.
On Capitol Hill, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D-Calif., said NATO commanders should not have to beg for troops from countries like Germany, France, Italy and Spain.
Bush called 2006 the most violent year in Afghanistan since the invasion.
“Across Afghanistan last year, the number of roadside bomb attacks doubled, direct fire attacks on international forces almost tripled and suicide bombings grew nearly fivefold,” Bush said.
This week, NATO’s top commander renewed an appeal 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. In Canada, a Senate committee said Tuesday that the government should a consider withdrawing its 2,500 troops unless NATO allies deliver additional troops.
Critics say the Bush administration has let conditions in Afghanistan worsen while escalating the war in Iraq.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., said he hoped the steps Bush announced for Afghanistan were the first, not last, in a recommitment to Afghanistan. Speaking at the Brookings Institution, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said he was pleased Bush had recognized that “unless we surge troops, hardware, money and high-level attention into Afghanistan it will fall back into the hands of the Taliban, terrorists and drug traffickers.”
Bush has asked Congress for $10.6 billion during the next two years for Afghanistan — $8.6 billion for training and equipping Afghan police and security forces and $2 billion for reconstruction.
Bush said another threat to democracy is the terrorist traffic along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a lawless area the president described as “wilder than the Wild West.” The border regions long have been suspected to be the hiding places for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
President Bush on Thursday chided NATO nations that have hesitated to send additional troops to Afghanistan or allow their soldiers already there to fight in the violent south and under other dangerous circumstances.
“When our commanders on the ground say to our respective countries ‘We need additional help,’ our NATO countries must provide it,” Bush said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. “As well, allies must lift restrictions on the forces they do provide so NATO commanders have the flexibility they need to defeat the enemy wherever the enemy may make its stand.”
Bush said that listening to his request is not only an obligation nations make as part of NATO, but is also crucial to their own security.
“The alliance was founded on this principle: an attack on one is an attack on all. That principle holds true whether the attack is on the home soil of a NATO nation or on allied forces deployed on a NATO mission abroad,” he said. “By standing together in Afghanistan, NATO forces protect their own people.”