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Commanders seek more forces in Afghanistan

Taliban prepare offensive against US, NATO troops

General James T. Conway wants a US Marine battalion sent. General James T. Conway wants a US Marine battalion sent.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Taliban forces, shattered and ejected from Afghanistan by the US military five years ago, are poised for a major offensive against US troops and undermanned NATO forces. This has prompted US commanders here to issue an urgent appeal for a new US Marine Corps battalion to reinforce the American positions.

NATO's 30,000 troops in Afghanistan are supposed to have taken responsibility for security operations. But Taliban attacks have risen sharply, and senior US officers here describe the NATO operation as weak, hobbled by a shortage of manpower and equipment, and by restrictions put on the troops by their capitals.

The accelerating war here and the critical need for troops complicate the crumbling security picture across the region -- from Afghanistan, where the United States chose to strike back after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, to Iraq, where US troops, in almost four years of fighting, have been unable to establish basic security and quell a bloody sectarian war.

President Bush is expected to announce this week the dispatch of thousands of additional troops to Iraq as a stopgap measure. Such an order, Pentagon officials say, would strain the Army and Marine Corps as they man both wars.

A US Army battalion fighting in a critical area of eastern Afghanistan is due to be withdrawn within weeks to deploy to Iraq.

Army Brigadier General Anthony J. Tata and other US commanders say that will happen as the Taliban is expected to unleash a campaign to cut the vital road between Kabul and Kandahar.

The official said the Taliban intend to seize Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, where the group was organized in the 1990s.

"We anticipate significant events there next spring," Tata said.

At stake, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is the key US strategic imperative of preventing Al Qaeda and Taliban forces from establishing terrorist havens, as Afghanistan was in the late 1990s when Al Qaeda launched operations to bomb US embassies and warships, and eventually hatched the Sept. 11 plot.

"This could be a pivotal year" for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said General James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, after a series of recent briefings here. "I don't think they see that they are near defeat or anything. I just think they sense they are vulnerable to inroads being made" against what had been a relatively stable country.

Despite the presence of about 30,000 NATO troops -- roughly 10 percent short of what its member nations had pledged to provide -- Taliban attacks on US, allied, and Afghan forces more than tripled in the past year, from 1,632 in 2005 to 5,388 in 2006, US officials say.

Suicide bomb attacks increased from 18 in 2005 to 116 in 2006. Direct-fire attacks also more than tripled, from three per day in 2005 to more than 10 per day in 2006.

With NATO unable or unwilling to stem the rising violence, the Taliban are pressing their advantage.

Rather than withdrawing to regroup over the winter, intelligence officials and combat commanders said, the Taliban forces -- clad in new cold-weather boots and fleece jackets -- are fighting through the bitter cold months.

"It is bleak," said Colonel Chris Haas, commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan.

Conway said US commanders understand that the Afghan war is an "economy of force" operation, a military term for a mission that is given minimal resources because it is a secondary priority, in this case behind Iraq.

Nevertheless, Conway said, he favored dispatching a Marine battalion here.

The Taliban are also building up forces in southern Afghanistan. US special forces teams have found logistics bases and a field hospital for as many as 900 Taliban fighters in the area of Lashkar Gah.

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