- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

President Bush yesterday said NATO will begin a new military campaign to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, announced U.S. troop levels in that country will remain at their all-time high of 27,000 “for the foreseeable future,” and said NATO allies must respond with more troops of their own.

“This spring there is going to be a new offensive in Afghanistan, and it’s going to be a NATO offensive,” the president said in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, laying out a path forward in Afghanistan. “That’s part of our strategy — relentless in our pressure. We will not give in to murderers and extremists.”

He promised a five-part plan designed to put Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government on more solid footing, including training 26,000 more national police and 48,000 more troops for the military; strengthening NATO’s commitment; improving provincial government; reversing last year’s growth in heroin-producing poppy, which finances the Taliban; and helping Mr. Karzai fight corruption in the judicial system.

Mr. Bush also repeated his challenge to NATO member nations that when NATO commanders say they need reinforcements, “our NATO countries must provide it.”

The speech comes as a growing number of Democrats and Republicans say the administration has failed to complete the mission in Afghanistan in part because Mr. Bush has been too preoccupied in Iraq.

Last month, when the president announced his plan to send reinforcements to Iraq, top Democrats accused him of fulfilling that pledge by shifting troops from Afghanistan.

Yesterday Democrats said Mr. Bush is responsible for the new nation’s failures.

“The Bush administration took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, leaving a deteriorating situation to worsen and Osama bin Laden on the loose more than five years after 9/11,” said Democratic National Committee Press Secretary Stacie Paxton.

The new strategy drew a mixed review from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She said the steps to secure the Afghan-Pakistan border and create economic opportunities are solid, but that Mr. Bush should do more against drug trafficking.

“Until the Afghan judicial system has been rid of the corrupting influence of drugs, we should implement an approach that has been used successfully in the fight against drugs in Colombia, namely extradition of the major kingpins to the U.S.,” she said.

Just as 2006 saw increased violence and insurgent successes in Iraq, it was also a year in which Taliban and al Qaeda fighters stepped up their battle to win control of more of Afghanistan.

Mr. Bush ticked off the indicators: Roadside bombs nearly doubled, engagements between insurgents and troops tripled, and suicide bombings grew five-fold.

He also said opium poppy cultivation, which had fallen in 2005, saw “a marked increase” last year.

The president challenged Afghanistan’s government to tackle that problem, saying, “I have made my concerns to President Karzai pretty clear — not pretty clear, very clear.”

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