US eyes troop surge for Afghanistan

The Pentagon is considering a plan to send more than 20 000 troops to Afghanistan over the next 12 to 18 months to help safeguard elections and quell rising Taliban violence, officials said on Friday.

United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates said he and top commanders had discussed sending five brigades to Afghanistan, including four brigades of combat ground forces as well as an aviation brigade, which a defence official said would consist mainly of support troops. An army combat brigade has about 3 500 soldiers.

Gates said much of the infusion could take place before Afghanistan holds elections by next autumn.

”I think it’s important that we have a surge of forces before the election,” said Gates, who stressed no decision on troop deployments had been taken.

”We’ve had some very preliminary discussions,” he told reporters after meeting to discuss southern Afghanistan with his counterparts from Nato countries with troops deployed in the region.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said more support troops, also known as ”enablers”, could also head to Afghanistan as Gates considers a request by US Army General David McKiernan, the top commander of Nato and US forces in the country.

”The commanders are looking for well north of 20 000 forces. Gates wishes to fulfil the commanders’ request,” Morrell told reporters as the US defence chief returned from Cornwallis.

Violence in Afghanistan has surged to the highest levels since the 2001 US-led invasion toppled the country’s Taliban government.

An Army combat brigade is already scheduled to arrive in eastern Afghanistan in January to begin training Afghan forces.

Most of the remaining forces, which could begin deploying as early as next spring, would likely head to poppy-growing southern Afghanistan where commanders say the Nato force of 18 000 troops is too small to contend with an increasingly confident Taliban insurgency.

There are now about 70 000 Western forces in Afghanistan, including 32 000 US forces — 14 500 under Nato command and 17 500 under a US command. — Reuters

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