By JASON STRAZIUSO
The Associated Press
Monday, January 29, 2007; 7:47 PM
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, Afghanistan -- The incoming commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan said Monday he expects Taliban militants to launch more suicide attacks this year than in 2006, when militants set off a record 139 such bombings.
Maj. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, said military leaders expect an increase in all kinds of attacks as the weather gets warmer.
"We're expecting an increase in the suicide bombers and some of the other tactics that they have believed are successful," he said. "So we expect to see that as well as the normal stand off type attacks and harassing kind of attacks on Afghan government officials, Afghan nationals, security forces, as well as coalition forces."
Rodriguez, who takes command from Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley on Friday, traveled to the eastern province of Paktika next to the Pakistan border on Monday to be briefed by military leaders and the provincial governor.
Paktika Gov. Mohammed Akram Akhpelwak told Rodriguez that Taliban militants have bases across the border in Pakistan and that he hopes U.S. forces can help stop the flow of fighters crossing into Paktika.
"If we just focus on one side of the border, we won't be successful," Akhpelwak told U.S. leaders.
Rodriguez called the border situation "harmful" to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We will continue to strengthen the security on the border, which is an important issue because of all the infiltration that occurs," Rodriguez told the governor.
The Taliban last year launched a record number of attacks, and some 4,000 people, most of them militants, died in insurgency-related violence, according to a tally by The Associated Press based on reports from Afghan, NATO and coalition officials.
Suicide attacks in 2006 totaled 139, up from 27 in 2005, according to U.S. military numbers. NATO has said suicide attacks last year killed 206 Afghan civilians, 54 Afghan security personnel and 18 soldiers from NATO's International Security Assistance Force.
Lt. Col. David Accetta, a U.S. military spokesman, said militants would launch more suicide attacks "because nothing else they've tried works."
President Hamid Karzai renewed his call Monday for talks with the Taliban and other groups battling his government.
"While we are fighting for our honor and dignity against an enemy who wants our destruction and wants us to bleed, once again we want to open a way for negotiations," Karzai told thousands gathered at the main Shiite Muslim mosque in Kabul.
Karzai, who took power after the Taliban fell from power and won a five-year term in 2004 elections, has made similar offers of talks before that have been rebuffed by militant leaders. The government also has a reconciliation program that encourages militants to lay down arms.
Rodriguez arrived at a time of increased attention on Afghanistan. The Defense Department last week extended the tours of 3,200 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division by four months, and the Bush administration said it would ask Congress for $10.6 billion for training Afghan security forces and reconstruction.
Gen. John Craddock, the American who took over in December as NATO's supreme commander of operations, said Monday the 3,200 troops and other U.S. contributions meant the NATO-led force in Afghanistan was at 90 percent of full strength. But he called on other allied nations to come forward with additional contributions.
He also urged allies to drop restrictions, or caveats, which stop troops from some nations from being deployed to the more dangerous southern and eastern regions, which border Pakistan.
"No caveats would be the goal," Craddock told reporters accompanying him on a four-day trip to Afghanistan. "I think we are seeing progress, but we're still not caveat free."
Germany, France, Italy and other European allies have faced criticism about restrictions limiting the role of their troops, but leaders of all the allied nations pledged in November that their forces would come to the aid of NATO comrades in danger anywhere in Afghanistan.
Rodriguez said the development of the Afghan army _ a key U.S. goal _ "is moving in the right direction," but that it will need international support for at least a couple years. More than 90 percent of U.S. patrols in Paktika province last year were joint patrols with the Afghan army, Toner said.
Rodriguez said the hunt for Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar remains important to the global war on terrorism. The two are believed to be hiding somewhere in the Afghan-Pakistan border region. Rodriguez said he didn't have more specific information on their possible locations.
"All our forces' efforts and intelligence will continue to try to bring them to justice, but we're trying to defeat a network, not just two people, so we're looking at the broader picture," he said.