US President Bush warned Thursday that fighting in Afghanistan was likely to flare this spring, and he called for a renewed commitment from NATO allies for additional troop commitments to battle Taliban insurgents.
In a speech delivered to an audience heavy with ambassadors and diplomats, Bush acknowledged that attacks and bombings increased sharply in the last year, making 2006 "the most violent year in Afghanistan since the liberation of the country" in 2001.
But he insisted that even as the United States is increasing its troop presence in Iraq, it also is able to increase its commitment in Afghanistan. Bush said he expected North Atlantic Treaty Organization members 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 Qaeda are preparing to launch new attacks," he said.
The U.S. and NATO forces are prepared, Bush said.
"Our strategy is not to be on the defense but to go on the offense," he said. "This spring, there`s going to be a new offensive in Afghanistan, and it`s going to be a NATO offensive."
American officials have expressed frustration in recent weeks with some NATO allies, saying they have failed to live up to their commitments in Afghanistan. They have bristled at the 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 the deployment of a brigade of the Army`s 10th Mountain Division. 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 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 D. 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 address marked 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 is the latest in a series of efforts to revive the allied effort.
But other than the United States and Britain, which has pledged an additional 800 troops, no other NATO country has agreed to a substantial increase in its Afghan deployment.
With the new forces, the U.S. has about 25,000 troops in Afghanistan, its highest level ever, and Britain will have about 6,000. - Los Angeles Times
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