Bush presses NATO to send more troops to Afghanistan

President says allies will launch spring offensive against insurgents

February 16, 2007|By Maura Reynolds | Maura Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- President Bush warned yesterday that fighting in Afghanistan is likely to flare this spring, and he urged a renewed commitment from NATO allies for additional troops if they are needed to battle insurgent Taliban fighters.

In a speech delivered to an audience heavy with ambassadors and diplomats, Bush acknowledged that attacks and bombings increased sharply in the past year, making 2006 "the most violent year in Afghanistan since the liberation of the country" in 2001.

But the president insisted that even as the United States is increasing its presence in Iraq, it is also willing and able to increase its commitment in Afghanistan.

Bush said he expects NATO allies to do the same.

"The snow is going to melt in the Hindu Kush mountains. And when it does, we can expect fierce fighting to continue. Taliban and al-Qaida are preparing to launch new attacks," Bush said.

But he insisted that the United States and NATO forces are more than prepared.

"Our strategy is not to be on the defense but to go on the offense," Bush said. "This spring, there's going to be a new offensive in Afghanistan, and it's going to be a NATO offensive."

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert M. 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 have the initiative in our hands rather than reacting to them," he said.

Asked whether he had talked with Pakistan's 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."

U.S. officials have expressed frustration in recent weeks with some NATO allies, saying that they have failed to fully live up to their commitments in Afghanistan. The officials have also bristled at restrictions some NATO countries have placed on how and where their troops and equipment can be used.

"When our commanders on the ground say to our respective countries we need additional help, our NATO countries must provide it in order to be successful in this mission," Bush said. "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 a stand."

In January, the Pentagon increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 3,200 by extending a brigade of the 10th Mountain Division and will continue the increase by sending another brigade this spring.

Bush mentioned the troop increase as well as the administration's request for congressional approval of an additional $11.8 billion in aid over two years as U.S. steps to shore up the government of President Hamid Karzai. Bush outlined plans to improve Afghan police and army units, eradicate illegal opium crops and build new roads.

Frederick Barton, who studies postwar reconstruction at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the president's speech appeared aimed at preparing the public for a bloody spring in Afghanistan.

"For us, 2007 is the fulcrum year," Barton said. "If we don't turn it around, we are looking at a slow deterioration through inertia."

Thomas Donnelly, a national security analyst at the American Enterprise Institute - the conservative think tank that sponsored Bush's speech - said the speech marks the end of a period of neglect for Afghanistan, a conflict that enjoys more support in Congress and abroad than does the war in Iraq.

"That's the most crucial message of all, to convince friend and foe alike that we are in it for the long haul," Donnelly said.

Bush's call for NATO countries to step up their contributions to the Afghan mission is the latest in a series of recent efforts to breathe new life into the allied effort.

But other than the United States and United Kingdom, which has pledged 800 more troops, no other NATO country has agreed to a substantial increase in its Afghan deployment.

With the new forces, the U.S. now has 27,000 troops in Afghanistan, its highest troop level ever, and Britain will have about 6,000 soldiers.

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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