By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006
NATO countries are sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan to help battle a surprisingly violent Taliban resurgence in the south -- the alliance's first test in ground combat for "a long, long time," NATO's top commander said yesterday.
Gen. James L. Jones said NATO members Romania, Poland, Canada, the United Kingdom and other countries would begin deploying from 2,000 to 2,500 additional troops to Afghanistan beginning next month to bolster the 20,000-strong NATO contingent. But NATO countries have not yet pledged more helicopters and transport aircraft that are also needed, Jones said.
The NATO buildup comes in addition to the approximately 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- the highest number of U.S. forces in the country since the Taliban government was toppled in 2001. An escalation of violence has driven casualties for foreign troops and Afghan civilians this year to their highest level since the war began.
NATO called for the fresh forces as it engaged in a major offensive this month that Jones said has killed about 1,000 Taliban fighters who massed against NATO troops near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's traditional stronghold.
"The Taliban decided to make a test case of this region," which had only a thin presence of U.S. troops until a NATO force of 6,000 took charge July 1, Jones said. "We have disturbed a hornet's nest, and the hornets are swarming," he told reporters at the Pentagon. He called the situation a "moment of truth" for security in lawless southern Afghanistan, where crime and narcotics are also rampant.
Indeed, southern Afghanistan is the "epicenter" of the nation's burgeoning narcotics trade, a worsening problem that Jones said is "at the core of everything that can go wrong" there. "We're not making progress; we're losing ground" in cracking down on narcotics cartels that help fund Taliban insurgents as well as al-Qaeda, he said.
The Taliban announced a "tactical retreat" last week as its forces dispersed from the Kandahar region to seek refuge farther west, but they are expected to regroup and continue attacking civilians, Jones said.
The fighting caused an exodus of about 20,000 people in the Pashmul area about 30 miles west of Kandahar, and NATO is focusing on providing food, clothing, and shelter for the war refugees.
"Many of the people of Afghanistan are on a fence right now, and they will be for whichever side wins," he said. Despite the deteriorating security, Jones pointed to progress in Afghanistan, citing the fact that 6 million children are attending school, and hundreds of development projects have been undertaken -- including the construction of about 1,800 miles of roads -- in the past four years.