More US troops to Afghanistan

From AFP, Feb. 14 (links added):

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon announced plans to maintain some 27,000 US troops in Afghanistan — the most since it went to war there more than five years ago — to try to crush a resurgence of the Taliban.

Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said the 173rd Airborne Brigade based in Vicenza, Italy will deploy in the spring to replace a brigade from the 10th Mountain Division whose tour has been extended for 120 days.

The moves have pushed US force levels in the country to 27,000, the most US boots on the ground since the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001 in retaliation for Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States, Pentagon officials said.

The 173rd “has been preparing to go and today we’re announcing that instead of going to
Iraq it’s going to Afghanistan,” Whitman told reporters.

He said it “will continue the commitment to the same level of effort” as with the extension of the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division brigade.

Both units would fall under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force which also has grown to some 35,000 troops.

Whitman said another brigade will be identified to take the place of the 173rd in the rotation of forces to Iraq, which also are being increased by more than 21,500 troops over the next few months.

He said the change will have no impact on the pace of the buildup in Iraq.

The all-time peak in US force levels in Afghanistan comes amid a major military buildup aimed at crushing a resurgence of the Taliban.

The militant Islamic movement last year unleashed its bloodiest offensive since being driven from power in late 2001.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates spent last week lobbying European allies for more troops and equipment for Afghanistan, insisting that they move quickly to seize the initiative against the Taliban.

A Pentagon statement said Gates’ approval of the deployment of the 173rd “will maintain the current level of forces necessary to provide sufficient military capability for the NATO-International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to further improve security and stability operations.”

“Two US brigade combat teams in Afghanistan provide military capability and combat power required for NATO to continue its initiatives in promoting stability and security in the winter and spring, while denying safe haven for the Taliban,” he said.

The 173rd will deploy for a year but it was unclear whether the Pentagon planned to maintain force levels at current levels throughout that period.

“Force levels in Afghanistan are conditions-based and will be determined in consultation with the Afghan government and NATO,” the Pentagon said.

The previous peak was in April 2006 at the start of the Taliban spring offensive when there were 23,300 US troops in the country.

During the first two years of the US military presence in Afghanistan, US forces levels rarely exceeded 10,000. They rose gradually after 2004 as US forces attempted to extend the Afghan government’s reach beyond Kabul.

Meanwhile, the ISAF web page boasts that “Taliban extremist commander, Mullah Manan, was killed in a precision air strike by ISAF, in Musa Qala district” of Helmand province Feb. 14. It denies claims that non-combatants were killed in the attack, and crows that “precision, laser-guided munitions” were used.

Although it but rarely rates a headline (as when total Iraq and Afghanistan US troop tolls surpassed the 9-11 toll last September), US and coalition troops are being killed in Afghanistan at an increasing rate. 360 US soliders have now been killed in Afghanistan, out of a total of 521 coalition fatalites, according to the Coalition Fatalities website. 2006 was the deadliest year so far for for the US-led coalition, at 191. 2005 was the second-deadliest, at 130.

See our last post on Afghanistan.