By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007
After the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion, the Bush administration is preparing a series of new military, economic and political initiatives aimed partly at preempting an expected offensive this spring by Taliban insurgents, according to senior U.S. officials.
Even as it trumpeted a change of course in Iraq this month, the White House has completed a review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. It will ask Congress for $7 billion to $8 billion in new funds for security, reconstruction and other projects in Afghanistan as part of the upcoming budget package, officials said.
That would represent a sizable increase in the U.S. commitment to the strife-torn country; since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, the United States has provided a little more than $14 billion in assistance for Afghanistan, the State Department says.
The U.S. military said yesterday that about 3,500 soldiers in the Army's 10th Mountain Division will have their tours in Afghanistan extended by four months, as part of an effort to beef up U.S. troop strength. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet with other NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on Friday to discuss Afghanistan, part of a new diplomatic offensive U.S. officials say is aimed at securing more international support for the government of President Hamid Karzai.
Although U.S. officials say the Taliban insurgency does not pose an immediate threat to the Karzai government, they are eager to nip in the bud a potentially bloody Taliban spring offensive that could erode Afghani confidence in the central government and in the staying power of the international coalition that is trying to establish security across the country.
Violence escalated last year in Afghanistan as allied forces confronted an emboldened Taliban movement in the south, and the central government encountered continuing problems providing basic services. Many government and outside experts on Afghanistan are also worried that the border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan are once again turning into safe havens for Taliban militants and their al-Qaeda allies. One senior official said the Taliban maintains "command and control" of the insurgency from Pakistan.
"Everyone talks about the Taliban military offensive this spring," said Kurt D. Volker, a senior State Department official involved with NATO policy. "We should be the ones taking the offensive if there is an offensive to be done. . . . It needs to be across the board. It's not just a military issue; it's a comprehensive issue -- development, counternarcotics, reconstruction and military." Volker said U.S. officials want to cut off the Taliban's ability to impose its will on groups in Afghanistan.
The U.S. politics surrounding Afghanistan offer an intriguing counterpoint to the U.S. politics regarding Iraq. While most Democrats fiercely oppose President Bush's plan to send another 21,000 troops to Iraq, they support a more invigorated battle in Afghanistan. If anything, they say, the administration has neglected Afghanistan, failing to insist that NATO allies assume more of the burden in maintaining stability there.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the leading Democratic presidential contender for 2008, returned from a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq last week saying U.S. priorities are "upside down" in the focus on Iraq. She told reporters, "We should be adding more American military forces [in Afghanistan], and we should be requiring the NATO countries to fulfill their commitments to the forces that they had promised us."
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he complained sharply to Rice this week about what he called an "appalling" lack of willingness to share the burden in Afghanistan by key allies like Germany and France. "I sense that fundamentally she agrees with me," Lantos added.
The issue of burden-sharing has been a flashpoint for trans-Atlantic relations as NATO has gradually taken over much of the responsibility for security in Afghanistan in the past two years. There are about 34,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, including about 12,000 U.S. soldiers, and another 12,000 U.S. troops operate there under U.S. command, according to Pentagon figures.
Bush and other U.S. officials have been pressing countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain to lift restrictions on their troops being deployed to the more violent southern areas of Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency is strongest. NATO countries did not fully meet former NATO supreme commander James L. Jones's calls for additional troops and equipment.
Jones's successor as NATO commander, Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, is working on a new assessment of troop and equipment needs for Afghanistan, and when that is complete, U.S. officials say, they will be pressing allies to help provide additional support for the mission. As officials described it, they are talking about a possible increase of several thousand troops for Afghanistan -- not all in U.S. contributions.
One senior administration official said that Rice's trip this week, coupled with follow-up visits by her subordinates and defense officials, are intended to demonstrate to European governments that the United States is committed to Afghanistan and would not abandon it to NATO simply because it was overwhelmed by the turmoil in Iraq.
There are "serious questions across the board" in Europe about the depth of the U.S. commitment, the official said, including worries that the buildup in Iraq would take troops from Afghanistan. The official, like several others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the results of the administration's Afghanistan review are not public.
Officials said the review began in the middle of last year and was prompted by a desire to reevaluate U.S. strategy in the wake of political changes in the country, as well as the resurgent Taliban militia. One senior official said a major conclusion of the review was the need to accelerate efforts to build roads, schools and other reconstruction projects in the wake of efforts to clean out insurgents. "We are talking about large amounts of money to kick-start the effort," this source said.
Another senior official involved with Afghanistan policy, offering a private briefing recently, said allied troops are facing a "bloody year in the south" in fighting the Taliban and slow progress in tackling the problems in the country, including corruption, opium production, and lack of roads and other infrastructure. "We still can succeed," he said, but "it is going to be a long project."
Staff writers Ann Scott Tyson, Thomas E. Ricks and Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.