New York Times
January 16, 2007
KABUL, Afghanistan, Jan. 15 — Senior American officials said Tuesday that they had seen a threefold surge in insurgent attacks in Afghanistan in recent months, caused by militants coming across the border with Pakistan, and they vowed to hold new talks with Pakistani officials on curbing the influx.
Of particular concern, the officials said, has been rise in attacks by Taliban and other militants launched from remote and largely ungoverned remote tribal areas in Pakistan into eastern Afghanistan, where most American combat forces are based.
“The border area is a problem,” said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who is making his first visit to Afghanistan since taking office. He told reporters after meeting with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, that more attacks were “coming across the border,” including some from Al Qaeda networks.
Mr. Gates flew by helicopter on Tuesday to a small joint American-Afghan base in Khost province, less than a mile from the border.
In that part of the border region, there has been a threefold increase in cross-border attacks since September, according to a senior American intelligence officer.
Fighters “cross the border on a regular basis,” said Staff Sgt. Ronald Locklear, one of the 120 America soldiers at the base, which he said was being hit by rocket and mortar fire at least once a week. Other officials said they had evidence that Pakistani border guards ignored they infiltration of Taliban fighters.
Officials also said the Bush administration was planning to double its aid to Afghanistan for training security forces and reconstruction this year in an effort to quell an insurgency that military officials here said Tuesday showed few signs of abating.
The senior American commander, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, told reporters after a meeting with Mr. Gates that he was “hopeful” that the Bush administration would back a much larger aid package for training Afghanistan security forces and for reconstruction projects.
Other officials said that the increased aid package would likely be at least twice last year’s level of nearly $3 billion, but that Bush administration still had to total up the final number.
The request for a substantial increase in aid, which would still have to be approved by Congress, is an indication of the growing American concern about the resurgence in attacks by Taliban fighters and other militants that began last summer. In the eastern part of Afghanistan, the attacks have continued at high levels even this winter, when fighting normally subsides, officials said.
On Jan. 10, in neighboring Paktika province, an estimated 130 fighters were killed by American airstrikes and artillery fire after crossing over the border in two large groups, officials said.
While praising Pakistan as a “strong ally,” Mr. Gates said the problem of Taliban and other fighters operating from Pakistan “clearly has to be pursued with the Pakistani government.”
General Eikenberry said that the “enemy is using both sides of the border” and that even after five years of pressing the Pakistani government to shut down Taliban infiltration, “there is no easy solution to the problem.”
The request for a substantial increase in Afghan aid is expected to be a part of a supplemental budget request for fiscal year 2007 for Iraq and Afghanistan and other military operations, which will likely exceed $100 billion, according to a summary of the Pentagon’s forthcoming request. comes at a time when the Bush administration is also sending more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq.
American commanders say the surge in cross-border attacks has coincided with an agreement reached in September in which the Pakistani government pulled back its soldiers in North Waziristan in return for pledge from tribal elders not to shelter militants or allow them to engage in illegal behavior.
“We’re seeing evidence that the enemy is taking advantage of that agreement to launch attacks inside Afghanistan,” said Col. Thomas Collins, the chief spokesmen for American forces in Afghanistan.
In the 60 days before the September agreement, the American intelligence official said there were 40 cross-border attacks in Khost and Paktika, but in the two months after the agreement there were 140 attacks.
Shortly before Mr. Gates arrived along the border, the Pakistani Army announced that it had launched an airstrike on a suspected militant camp in South Waziristan, killing 25 to 30 militants that it said were Al Qaeda members, according to The Associated Press, which quoted a Pakistani Army spokesman.
General Eikenberry who is leaving his post as the senior American commander in Afghanistan this month, said American and NATO troops along with Afghan Army units had inflicted heavy casualties on the Taliban, which he said remained too weak to undertake anything other than hit-and-run attacks or suicide bombings.
The American military intelligence officer disclosed for the first time the statistics on the rise in insurgent attacks last year. There were 139 suicide attacks, up from 27 in 2005, and use of roadside bombs more than doubled to 1,677 last year from 783 in 2005. The number of what the military calls “direct attacks,” meaning attacks by insurgents using small arms, grenades and other weapons, increased to 4,542 last year from 1,558 in 2005.
But even with 21,000 American troops and another 20,000 soldiers from other NATO countries, military officials are pushing for more forces before spring, when the Taliban is widely expected to intensify its attacks.
General Eikenberry is seeking to extend the deployment of a 1,200-soldier American battalion, which is halfway through a four-month deployment. The unit, part of the 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y., is scheduled to go to Iraq in eight months, but General Eikenberry has argued he needs the additional forces to remain in Afghanistan.
Asked about increasing American troops levels in Afghanistan, where the Taliban resistance has been growing, Mr. Gates said that if military commanders sought more, “I would be strongly inclined to recommend that to the president.”
On Tuesday, he also urged other NATO counties to follow through on pledges to send more troops and equipment to Afghanistan. NATO governments still have not sent the additional 1,200 troops that Gen. David Richards, the British commander of NATO forces here, has requested to serve as reserve force that he can send wherever violence flares up around Afghanistan, according a NATO spokesman, Mark Laity.