U.S. troops to form flexible Afghanistan force

Friday, January 26, 2007; 1:20 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. troops in Afghanistan whose tour of duty has been extended will form a long-sought NATO backup force which can be deployed anywhere in the country, a top U.S. commander said on Friday.

The Pentagon announced on Thursday that the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, would stay in Afghanistan for up to four months longer than planned as part of a U.S. drive to combat an expected spring offensive by Taliban militants.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley said some of those troops would form a "theater tactical reserve" -- a flexible battalion regularly requested by the commander of the country's NATO security force.

"It is in direct support of the commanding general of the (NATO) International Security Assistance Force," Freakley told Pentagon reporters by video link from Afghanistan.

"It will be used and employed where he best wants to make a difference in Afghanistan -- his force, his choice for where he employs it," said Freakley, the commander of the 10th Mountain Division.

A U.S. infantry battalion normally has around 1,200 troops.

The current commander of the NATO force, British Army Gen. David Richards, has said that such a reserve force was top of his list of priorities but alliance member nations did not come forward with the necessary troops.

Richards is due to hand over command of the NATO force to U.S. Army General Dan McNeil in the next few weeks.

The extension of the 10th Mountain Division troops and plans to spend more than $10 billion in aid, announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday, form part of a renewed U.S. drive to stabilize Afghanistan.

The Taliban stepped up attacks in Afghanistan last year, the bloodiest since U.S.-led forces toppled the hard-line Islamist movement in 2001 in response to the September 11 attacks.

U.S. commanders expect the militants to try to increase the violence again in spring. Fighting in Afghanistan traditionally subsides in winter but revives as the snows melt.

© 2007 Reuters