Foreign troops to increase in Afghanistan

New focus is to help the country rebuild

June 05, 2006|By KIM BARKER | KIM BARKER,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The number of foreign troops in troubled southern Afghanistan will double this summer, and these troops will focus more on rebuilding the country and less on just fighting insurgents, the head of the NATO mission here said yesterday.

Lt. Gen. David Richards, the new commander of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, said the number of battalions would increase to four from two when the ISAF takes over security from the U.S.-led coalition in the south, most likely late next month. He estimated that the number of troops would go from an average of 3,000 to an average of 6,000.

"I think the coalition has done a really good job in the south, but they have been relatively short of troops, of boots on the ground," Richards said at a news conference.

Richards also said the international peacekeeping force would have a different approach toward insurgents than the U.S.-led coalition. He said soldiers would concentrate more on rebuilding the war-torn country, still grappling with a weak infrastructure almost five years after the Taliban was driven out. He said the way to win a fight like this is to win the support of average Afghans, by giving them roads, power and water.

The switch from a U.S.-led coalition to an international mission in the south comes as Taliban remnants and other insurgents have stepped up attacks, especially in the south. Hundreds of fighters, mainly Taliban supporters, have been killed in battles in recent weeks.

Suicide attacks, once unheard of in Afghanistan, are now a daily event. Yesterday, a suicide bomber killed three other people and injured 15 when he tried to blow up Asadullah Khalid, the governor of southern Kandahar province. Khalid was unhurt, said Dawood Ahmadi, his spokesman.

Ahmadi said the suicide bomber was a Pakistani. Afghan officials have blamed neighboring Pakistan for fueling the Taliban insurgency.

In some remote parts of southern Afghanistan, the Taliban is again the law. For three days last week, Taliban forces held a district headquarters in southern Uruzgan province. Government officials and their relatives also are being kidnapped throughout the south.

"The Taliban kidnapped my two cousins last night," Hamidullah Tokhi, a member of parliament and former governor of southern Zabul province, said yesterday. "My brother called and asked me, `Should I tell the government?' I said, `No. Because then the Taliban will kill them.' The government is weak and can't do anything."

At his news conference, Richards said he does not expect to succeed overnight. He said troops in the south would deal with insurgents and build on the coalition's approach.

He also defended the ISAF's response to the deadly riots sparked last week when a U.S. military truck lost control on the Kabul outskirts and hit 12 vehicles. ISAF troops rescued trapped European diplomats but were not deployed to the streets. Richards said doing so would have ended "in a violent confrontation with some very volatile crowds."

Richards also said foreign troops must stop driving so quickly and sometimes inconsiderately in Afghanistan -- a technique used to avoid suicide bombers and roadside bombs.

"We cannot go on alienating people in a way that I know is happening," he said.

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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