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Bush: NATO allies must provide more troops in Afghanistan
WASHINGTON -- President Bush said Thursday that NATO allies need to supply more soldiers to Afghanistan and be willing to send them into the most violent battles with Taliban fighters, who are gearing up for a new spring offensive.
"When our commanders on the ground say to our respective countries 'We need additional help,' our NATO countries must provide it," Bush said in a speech five years after U.S.-led forces toppled Afghanistan's repressive Taliban regime.
Flush with money from heroin-producing poppy crops, Taliban fighters have proven much tougher than NATO expected when it deployed its first contingent of peacekeepers there in 2003. Calling poppy cultivation a threat to a fragile democracy, Bush implored President Hamid Karzai to address the marked increase in harvests last year, after a decline in 2005.
"I have made my concerns to President Karzai pretty clear -- not pretty clear, very clear -- and that in order for him to gain the confidence of his people, and the confidence of the world, he's got to do something about it, with our help," Bush said in an hourlong speech sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.
The call for NATO nations to supply more soldiers and equipment to fight the Taliban was a nudge to Germany and other NATO nations that have kept their troops out of the most violent parts of Afghanistan.
Politicians in Canada, Britain, the United States and other nations with troops in southern Afghanistan have been irked by the reluctance of some European allies to commit extra troops to the 35,500-strong NATO force, and in particular to allow their troops to be deployed to the Taliban's heartland in the south and east.
"Allies must lift restrictions on the forces they do provide so NATO commanders have the flexibility they need to defeat the enemy wherever the enemy may make a stand," Bush said.
On Capitol Hill, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Lantos, D-Calif., said NATO commanders should not have to beg for troops from countries like Germany, France, Italy and Spain.
"It is an outrage that only troops from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom are deployed to the most hazardous spots," Lantos said.
"No longer should this administration stand passively by while our so-called allies take advantage of American generosity and courage."
Bush called 2006 the most violent year in Afghanistan since the invasion.
"Across Afghanistan last year, the number of roadside bomb attacks doubled, direct fire attacks on international forces almost tripled and suicide bombings grew nearly fivefold," Bush said.
This week, NATO's top commander renewed an appeal for allies to fill gaps in the international military force in Afghanistan, warning that failure to send reinforcements was weakening the mission and jeopardizing the lives of soldiers fighting the Taliban. In Canada, a Senate committee said Tuesday that the government should a consider withdrawing its 2,500 troops unless NATO allies deliver additional troops.
Critics say the Bush administration has let conditions in Afghanistan worsen while escalating the war in Iraq.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., said he hoped the steps Bush announced for Afghanistan were the first, not last, in a recommitment to Afghanistan. Speaking at the Brookings Institution, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said he was pleased Bush had recognized that "unless we surge troops, hardware, money and high-level attention into Afghanistan it will fall back into the hands of the Taliban, terrorists and drug traffickers."
Bush has asked Congress for $10.6 billion during the next two years for Afghanistan -- $8.6 billion for training and equipping Afghan police and security forces and $2 billion for reconstruction.
The Pentagon announced on Wednesday that about 3,000 soldiers scheduled to go to Iraq would be sent to Afghanistan instead. Deployment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, would keep the force at the current strength of 27,000 -- the highest of the war.
Bush said another threat to democracy is the terrorist traffic along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a lawless area the president described as "wilder than the Wild West." The border regions long have been suspected to be the hiding places for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.