U.S. doubles troops in Afghan army
The U.S. military has doubled the number of soldiers embedded in the Afghan army to speed the training of a fledgling force that is shouldering more of the security burden facing President Hamid Karzai's government, a spokesman said Sunday.
American commanders insist a Taliban-led insurgency is losing steam, but a senior leader of the ousted regime vowed Sunday that violence will pick up after the country's harshest winter in years.
A group of 288 U.S. National Guard soldiers arrived in Afghanistan on Friday and Saturday to serve as trainers with the Afghan National Army, joining about 300 already assigned to Afghan units, Maj. Eric Bloom told The Associated Press.
Lt. Gen. David Barno, the top commander of American forces in Afghanistan, requested the extra troops to speed the training of the army, which has nearly 20,000 members but is slated to grow to 70,000 within two years.
The Afghan defense minister has said that that force would be more than a match for militants, warlords and drug smugglers that challenge the government's authority, but it is unclear when the army will be strong enough for the United States and NATO to begin reducing their expensive deployments.
Starting in March, six Afghan battalions are to be trained simultaneously with the aim of having the entire force ready by December 2006, nine months earlier than originally planned, officials told AP earlier this month.
Barno has suggested that the American contingent of 17,000 could be trimmed this year if a reconciliation drive between Karzai's government and the Taliban takes off.
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, the movement's one-time ambassador to the United Nations, said in Pakistan on Sunday that he and three other former Taliban officials met Karzai in Kabul in recent days and were willing to support his government.
Mujahid said they represented a group which had broken with the Taliban in December 2001 ¡ª soon after its regime was ousted by U.S.-backed forces in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on America for harboring Osama bin Laden inside Afghanistan.
Although U.S. and Afghan officials insist that many Taliban have signaled their readiness to make peace, other supporters of the hardline militia are vowing to fight on.
A man who identified himself as the Taliban's former defense minister claimed Sunday that no Taliban representative has had talks "with invaders."
"We consider jihad is the only way to force them leave our country. We will fight with them. Dialogue is not a solution," the man who said he was Mullah Obaidullah Akhund told AP.
He said only heavy snow and freezing temperatures were curbing Taliban attacks on U.S. and government forces.
"We will step up attacks as the weather changes. The Taliban movement is active under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Omar. And Taliban will fight till the last Talib is alive," he said.
Obaidullah, regarded as an associate of the elusive Taliban supreme leader, purportedly spoke by a satellite phone from an undisclosed location. It was not possible to independently verify his identity.
The U.S. military says it is still conducting operations during the traditionally quieter winter months but has reported few contacts with insurgents.
U.S. commanders say the new Afghan troops have performed excellently in combat with militants near the Pakistani border and that the multiethnic army is accepted by villagers in the Pashtun-dominated south, where the Taliban drew their main strength.
Bloom said the new U.S. trainers are being schooled on the communications equipment used to call in strikes from American warplanes to support the Afghans, who often operate along with American special forces.
The number of American trainers would increase again this summer, he said, when control of the more than 1,200-strong multinational task force in charge of the training passes from the 76th Brigade of the Indiana National Guard to a Florida unit.