from Financial Express
Caroline Alexander and James G. Neuger
NATO pledged to redouble efforts to stabilize Afghanistan after the U.S. said it will escalate the war against the Taliban and boost financial aid to rebuild the country.
The alliance ``is stepping up its game in Afghanistan on all fronts,'' Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters after North Atlantic Treaty Organization foreign ministers met in Brussels today. ``But we also have to underline that it is a long-term commitment by the international community.''
NATO's 33,000-man force is gearing up to counter a spring offensive by the Taliban and increased roadside bombings while political leaders grapple with how to deliver the economic boost to lift Afghans out of poverty.
The U.S. is challenging NATO to widen its commitment to Afghanistan after the White House said yesterday that President George W. Bush will seek $10.6 billion in financial assistance, and the Pentagon said it will extend the Afghan tours of 3,200 U.S. soldiers.
``We must do more, and do it better, faster,'' Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the meeting, according to a State Department statement. ``We must protect innocent lives. We must stay, we must fight and we must win.''
Several countries today made ``clear commitments'' to boost reconstruction and development assistance, De Hoop Scheffer said. He said he's ``relatively optimistic'' more nations will send additional troops to Afghanistan, while declining to provide details before a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Seville, Spain, next month.
The 26-nation trans-Atlantic alliance, in command of the Afghan mission since last year, is divided over how to fight the war with many countries limiting their combat role. France and Germany, for example, have refused to deploy troops to Taliban strongholds in the south and east.
Germany is keeping a tight leash on its 3,000 troops in northern Afghanistan, with parliamentary approval required for a proposal to dispatch six Tornado reconnaissance jets to police the southern skies.
``We all know full well that it will take more than a military presence alone to reach a stabilization,'' German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters today. The allies need to ``tie our military presence in more strongly with civilian reconstruction.''
Reliant on Aid
Bush's budget request to Congress breaks down into $8.6 billion to train and equip Afghan forces and $2 billion for reconstruction, Rice said.
One goal is to expand the Afghan Army to 70,000 soldiers from about 32,000, the senior U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Army Major General Benjamin Freakley, said today in a briefing from Bagram Air Field.
Another is to complete a ``ring road' around the country by 2010. About 75 percent of the road is completed, Nicholas Burns, the State Department's top political affairs official, told reporters in Washington.
Afghanistan relies on international aid for more than half its budget. The U.K. is the second-biggest donor after the U.S., pledging more than 1 billion pounds ($1.96 billion) since 2001. About 70 percent of that money has gone directly to the Afghan government to help fund projects including its drug control strategy and reconstruction in the south.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has decided against allowing the spraying of herbicides on opium poppy fields this year because of health and environmental concerns, the country's anti-narcotics ministry told the Associated Press this week. Afghanistan is a major producer of the crop, which is the raw material for heroin.
``We're having ongoing discussions on that issue,'' Burns said, when asked about Karzai's decision.
Development efforts are complicated by the resurgent violence in Afghanistan. Taliban attacks using roadside bombs more than doubled in the past year, Freakley told reporters. There were 1,745 such attacks in 2006, compared with 865 the previous year, Freakley said.
Freakley called the increase a sign of desperation on the part of the Taliban, which was driven from power in 2001. ``Every time the enemy has massed in the past year, they have suffered devastating defeats,'' he said, adding later: ``This is not a popular insurgency. This is a forced insurgency, an insurgency of intimidation.''
The general said he expects Taliban forces to begin a spring offensive aimed at retaking the southern city of Kandahar. He predicted the effort would fail, saying, ``I'm not too worried.''
Forces from NATO last year assumed responsibility for security operations in that region.
The NATO force is at about 80 percent of its intended strength, Freakley said, and U.S. forces will temporarily bridge that gap by providing a 1,000-troop reserve force while U.S. officials press NATO members to increase their troop commitments.
The reserve will come from soldiers in the 3rd Brigade of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, who yesterday had their tour of duty in Afghanistan extended by up to 120 days.
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