More Recruits, U.S. Arms Planned for Afghan Military
SOURCE: Defense Department, State Department | The Washington Post - December 05, 2007
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
KABUL, Dec. 4 -- The United States and Afghanistan plan to expand the Afghan army by up to 12,000 soldiers and accelerate shipments of tens of thousands of U.S. M-16 rifles, armored Humvees and other weaponry by the spring to counter a growing threat from Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda fighters, U.S. and Afghan commanders said Tuesday.
The Afghan army, now 50,000 strong, expects to reach its target strength of 70,000 soldiers by the middle of next year, Afghan and U.S. officials say. Under the new plan, it would then begin recruiting as many as 12,000 additional soldiers, for a total of 82,000, according to Lt. Gen. Sher Mohammed Karimi, the army's operations chief.
While U.S. officials cite the achievements of the Afghan military, the force has historically suffered from high attrition rates. It has also lacked sufficient military aid and trainers, and has been hobbled by old weaponry, Afghan defense officials say.
During a visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was met at every stop with urgent requests -- from Afghan generals, U.S. commanders and tribal leaders -- for more funding, troops, military equipment and even an airfield and a hospital.
In an appearance with Gates, President Hamid Karzai also made a broad public appeal for increased assistance. "If you are asking me whether we need more, I will never say no. I will keep asking for more," he said at a packed news conference at his presidential palace in Kabul.
The overall level of violence in Afghanistan this year has been the highest since the U.S. military led a campaign to oust the Taliban government in late 2001, with unprecedented casualties among U.S. and other coalition troops, Afghan security forces and civilians.
Suicide bombings and cross-border strikes have increased, and more foreign fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda are infiltrating Afghanistan, according to Western and Afghan officials. "Violent extremists led by al-Qaeda are increasing that tactic on the battlefield," Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, the senior commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said Tuesday. "It's very clear that they don't want this government to survive."
Gates witnessed some of the violence firsthand Tuesday as his motorcade to the airport passed a site where, about an hour earlier, a suicide car bomber had killed two Afghan civilians and wounded 15 others. The charred wreckage of a Toyota Corolla marked the latest in a string of attacks in Kabul and underlined what U.S. commanders have said is a new attempt by insurgents to carry out attention-getting attacks in the capital and other cities.
[On Wednesday, a suicide bomber rammed an explosives-laden car into a minibus carrying Afghan soldiers south of Kabul, killing at least 12 people and injuring 20, the Associated Press reported. It was the third suicide attack in the area in eight days.]
"I have been concerned about the fact that there has been a growing level of violence here in Afghanistan over the last couple of years," Gates said Tuesday. One reason for the increased fighting, he said, was "a much more aggressive effort" by coalition troops to move into Taliban sanctuaries, primarily in the ethnic Pashtun areas of the east and south, where scores of districts have fallen, at least temporarily, under Taliban control.
The violence is highly uneven, however. In a visit to the eastern province of Khost, a long-volatile region on the Pakistani border, Gates met with U.S. commanders who described a dramatic drop in attacks as U.S. forces partnered with the local government and boosted aid. Before an attack Monday night, "we went seven months without an attack on a district center," said Lt. Col. Scott Custer.
The Pentagon is considering a series of initiatives to counter Taliban and al-Qaeda offensives. In addition to expanding the Afghan army, officials are looking at ways to build local police forces and improve governance to help communities resist insurgents.