Tuesday, January 27, 2009

NATO: 3,000 US troops deploy near Afghan capital

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Thousands of U.S. troops originally destined for Iraq have deployed south of Afghanistan's capital in the first illustration of a new military focus on the increasingly difficult fight in the South Asian nation, NATO said Tuesday.

Nearly 3,000 American soldiers with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, New York, moved into the provinces of Logar and Wardak to the south of Kabul, the military alliance said. They will serve as part of the 55,000-strong NATO force in the country.

The latest deployment indicates the shifting focus in military operations from Iraq to Afghanistan, where the U.S. and its allies are trying to turn the tide of Taliban gains and prop up the government of embattled President Hamid Karzai.

President Barack Obama is expected to double the size of American troops in Afghanistan this year, as the country becomes one of his foreign policy priorities.

There are some 70,000 foreign soldiers, including 33,000 U.S. troops, in Afghanistan, the highest number since the Taliban were ousted from power in the 2001 U.S. invasion. The majority of the American troops, including the new brigade, fight under NATO command, which is headed by a U.S. four star general. The rest are part of 13,000-strong U.S. coalition.

Last year was the deadliest for foreign troops since the invasion, with 286 killed, up from 222 the previous year. NATO said two of its troops were killed Tuesday in the south.

The new brigade was originally slated to deploy to Iraq but was officially rerouted to Afghanistan in September, NATO said in a statement. It is not included in Obama's plan to send up to 30,000 more troops to the country.

Both provinces where the troops are deploying have become areas of near-daily insurgent activity and little government presence beyond provincial capitals and main roads, creating a sense of encirclement around the capital.

Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday that the world hasn't done enough to provide economic, political and military resources to Afghanistan and that the U.S. and its allies lack a coherent strategy. The result is a country backsliding into Taliban control, Biden said.

The focus of the brigade for the next year will be to help improve security in Wardak and Logar and help bring stronger government and better infrastructure to the local population, NATO said.

"Our first steps are to get forces out into these more populated areas and begin to interact with the people," Col. David B. Haight, the unit commander, said in the statement.

"Knowing the human terrain is as important as knowing the mountainous terrain surrounding our forward operating bases." Haight said.

Underscoring daily violence that afflicts the country, NATO said two of its troops were killed in southern Afghanistan, which is the center of the Taliban-led insurgency.

The military alliance did not provide the troops' nationalities or any other details on the circumstances surrounding their deaths.

In the same region, five Taliban fighters were killed in an overnight gunbattle with Afghan and international forces, said provincial police chief Assadullah Sherzad. There were no casualties among Afghan and foreign troops.

Southern Afghanistan is the center of the Taliban-led insurgency, which has spread over the last three years in many areas of the country. As part of their resurgence, militants have increasingly relied on roadside bombs in their campaign against Afghan and foreign forces.

A roadside bomb struck a police patrol and wounded two officers on Tuesday in southern Kandahar province. The bomb went off in the center of Kandahar city, the provincial capital, said provincial Police Chief Matiullah Khan Qateh.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said three civilians were killed late Monday in eastern Nangarhar province when their minivan was hit by a remote-controlled bomb blast.



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