U.S. commanders seeking more troops for Afghanistan

The Baltimore Sun

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Concerned by Taliban gains and worried about more violence, U.S. military commanders have recommended that more U.S. troops come to Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters yesterday.

He did not say how many troops were requested. But other military officials have suggested that an additional 1,000 or 1,200 troops would help make up the shortfall in Afghanistan, especially considering an anticipated spring offensive by the Taliban. Gates, on his first visit to Afghanistan, indicated that he would recommend an increase to President Bush.

"I think it is important that we not let this success here in Afghanistan slip away from us and that we keep the initiative," he told reporters aboard his aircraft yesterday after leaving Afghanistan.

The extra troops would mean another stretch on the U.S. military, which is already pulled between two fronts and a plan announced recently by Bush to add 21,500 troops in Iraq. Troops are stretched so thin that Bush has agreed to ask Congress to increase the size of the Army and the Marine Corps. Many current service members have fought in both fronts, sometimes twice.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, back from a weekend trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, said yesterday that the United States should limit the number of troops in Iraq and increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The New York Democrat, a likely presidential contender in 2008, said in several television interviews that the conflict in Afghanistan was "one of the great missed opportunities."

Clinton and Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, sent a letter to Gates yesterday calling for an increase in Afghanistan of two or possibly three infantry battalions, about 2,300 troops.

"Unlike in Iraq," the senators wrote, "we have a government in Afghanistan committed to promoting national interests over sectarian ones, is making tangible progress in governance, sincerely wants more U.S. help, and is fighting the enemy that brought us Sept. 11."

A U.S. troop increase in Afghanistan would also add to concerns about the role of NATO, which has taken over most of the military responsibilities in the country. The Taliban have regrouped in the past year, making their biggest push against international and Afghan troops since fleeing power in late 2001. A reported 4,000 people died in the violence last year, the highest death toll in the conflict so far.

Despite urgent pleas for more troops, NATO countries have not yet been able to meet the alliance's requests. About 11,000 of the 31,000 NATO troops are from the United States. As many as 13,000 other U.S. troops are also in the country, training the Afghan army, building roads or hunting for terrorists.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan also has asked to extend the combat tour of about 1,200 soldiers already in the country, in preparation for the spring offensive.

In an interview yesterday, Lt. Gen. David Richards, the British commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, reiterated the need for more troops. He said there are no reserve soldiers for the war. For example, in Helmand province, about 5,000 British soldiers have faced an unrelenting battle without any available substitutes.

The winter has normally meant a lull in Taliban activity, but this year the fighting has continued, although at a reduced level. Yesterday, NATO announced the detention of a prominent Taliban commander, Mohammed Nabi, during a raid on a compound in Helmand.

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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