US lauds wealth of Afghanistan troop pledges
Brussels: The United States welcomed new troop commitments from its allies to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, warning the battle was a crucial test for NATO.
Eight years after driving the Taliban out of power, more than 40 nations are preparing to boost total troop numbers in Afghanistan to around 150,000 over 18 months to launch a new offensive against the insurgents.
As NATO foreign ministers met to discuss the new strategy, more than 1,000 soldiers, mainly American, began a major drive to clear insurgents from a key battleground in southern Afghanistan, the military said.
NATO said the offensive was designed to crush insurgents around a town in Helmand in order to allow development to begin and civilians to return -- key planks of the new US strategy.
Obama’s Afghan plan
On Tuesday, US President Barack Obama announced he was sending more than 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to seize the initiative from the insurgents.
"This is a crucial test for NATO, which has been the greatest and most successful military alliance in history," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters after talks with NATO ministers in Brussels.
"It is crucial that we remain firm in our resolve and see this mission through."
Washington called on European allies and partners fighting alongside US troops in Afghanistan to find 5,000 to 7,000 soldiers to swell their ranks as part of the strategy with the protection of civilians at its epicentre.
"At least 25 countries have announced that they will send more forces to the mission in 2010," said Hillary. "This is a significant commitment."
And top aides predicted even more were on the way for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
"NATO and ISAF, and their ISAF partners pledged to contribute about 7,000 more troops, and we expect that there will be several thousand more likely in the near future," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters.
"The 7,000, give or take, is not an end figure," he added, saying the United States expected more to follow after a London conference on January 28.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said US allies had offered some 7,000 troops and that more pledges were expected.
Italy confirmed on Thursday it was ready to send 1,000 extra soldiers, a figure matched by Georgia, while Poland is likely to send 600. Britain has committed 500 and South Korea 400, according to NATO officials.
Hungary said it would send another 200 troops, on top of its 300 already there.
A further 1,500 troops -- 700 of them British -- sent to provide security for the fraud-marred elections in August will remain in Afghanistan.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged allies to back the new strategy.
"We are now at a vital time, and we all know that in the 1990s Afghanistan was the incubator of international terrorism, the incubator of choice for global jihad," he told reporters.
Hillary voiced cautious hope that France would send more troops to Afghanistan, where 3,300 are already stationed.
Rasmussen has hinted that Paris was weighing additional troop support, Hillary said in an interview with US public television network PBS.
"They do have significant numbers there now, but we hope that they will come forward," she added.
If the pledges are met, international forces and the Afghan army could total almost 300,000 troops by the middle of next year, around 10 times more than ISAF estimates of the number of al Qaeda, Taliban and other militants.
The Afghan envoy to Washington renewed Kabul`s pledge to take control of its own security within five years, describing the US timeline as "realistic”.
"In five years, according to our plans, we should be able to take care of security throughout the country," Ambassador Said Tayab Jawad told a seminar.
"For a smooth transfer we are asking for the establishment of a joint security consultation group with the US and NATO."
But while the plan has been welcomed at NATO, Pakistan -- Afghanistan`s nuclear-armed neighbour which is also battling Islamist insurgents -- has not yet backed it, amid fears a withdrawal could embolden the Taliban on its own territory.
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