The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan is asking for 2,000 more soldiers to join the 140,000-strong international force here, NATO officials said Monday. It was unclear how many would be Americans.
Coalition officials said nearly half will be trainers for the rapidly expanding Afghan security forces and will include troops trained to neutralize roadside bombs that have been responsible for about 60 percent of the 2,000 allied deaths in the nearly 9-year war.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to talk about the issue with media, said the NATO-led command had been asking for the troops even before Gen. David Petraeus assumed command here in July.
Petraeus recently renewed that request with the NATO command in Brussels. The alliance has had trouble raising more troops for the war effort, with at least 450 training slots still unfilled after more than a year.
With casualties rising, the war has become deeply unpopular in many of NATO's 28 member countries, suggesting the additional forces will have to come from the United States. In Europe, polls show the majority of voters consider it an unnecessary drain on finances at a time of sharp cuts in public spending and other austerity measures.
An additional 30,000 U.S. service members have already been sent to Afghanistan as part of a surge aimed at finally suppressing the stubborn Taliban insurgency that has already claimed the lives of more than 1,100 American troops. NATO announced that an American service member was killed Sunday in eastern Afghanistan.
The additional trainers are considered essential to meeting the goal of increasing Afghanistan's army and police from the present 300,000 members to 400,000 by next year, when the drawdown of international troops is expected to start.
One of the officials said the new trainers were needed to staff new schools for combat support and service support specialties to enable the transition of responsibility to the Afghan forces.
NATO officials have said the extra instructors are hard to find because none of the member states has large numbers of such specialists available for assignment to Afghanistan.
Another NATO official said the renewed request for more trainers and explosives disposal experts was part of a routine review of force requirements.
"There is an ongoing discussion on possible additional resources needed to continue supporting the efforts under way," she said.
Also Monday, several hundred Afghans shouted anti-American slogans and "death" to President Barack Obama to protest plans by a Florida church to burn the Islamic holy book the Quran on Saturday to mark the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States that provoked the Afghan war.
The crowd listened to fiery speeches from members of parliament, provincial council deputies, and Islamic clerics who criticized the U.S. and demanded the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country. Some threw rocks when a U.S. military convoy passed, but speakers shouted at them to stop and told police to arrest anyone who disobeyed.
The Gainesville, Florida-based Dove World Outreach Center announced plans to burn copies of the Quran on church grounds but has been denied a permit to set a bonfire. The church, which made headlines last year after distributing T-shirts that said "Islam is of the Devil," has vowed to proceed with the burning.
"We know this is not just the decision of a church. It is the decision of the president and the entire United States," said Abdul Shakoor, an 18-year-old high school student who said he joined the protest after hearing neighborhood gossip about the Quran burning.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a statement condemning Dove World Outreach Center's plans, saying Washington was "deeply concerned about deliberate attempts to offend members of religious or ethnic groups."
Protesters who had gathered in front of Kabul's Milad ul-Nabi mosque raised placards and flags emblazoned with slogans calling for the death of Obama, while police looked on. They burned American flags and a cardboard effigy of Dove World Outreach Center's pastor, Terry Jones, before dispersing peacefully.
Muslims consider the Quran to be the word of God and demand it, along with any printed material containing its verses or the name of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad, be treated with the utmost respect. Any intentional damage or show of disrespect to the Quran is considered deeply offensive.
In 2005, 15 people died and scores were wounded in riots in Afghanistan sparked by a story in Newsweek magazine alleging that interrogators at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay placed copies of the Quran in washrooms and had flushed one down the toilet to get inmates to talk. Newsweek later retracted the story.
Meanwhile, police said they were investigating the stabbing death of well-known Afghan journalist Sayed Hamid Noori outside his Kabul home Sunday night.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a statement ordering authorities to spare no effort in bringing his killers to justice. Noori had been a former state television news anchor, as well as a member of Afghanistan's Association of Independent Journalists.
Reporters in Afghanistan face pressure from the government, local politicians and Taliban insurgents, all of whom look askance at negative reporting. At least 20 Afghan journalists have been killed and 200 physically assaulted in the past decade, with scores more leaving the profession or fleeing the country amid threats to their safety.
Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.