- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

SEVILLE, Spain — The United States and its allies must launch their own offensive this spring against the Taliban in Afghanistan, a senior defense official said yesterday, calling this a pivotal time in the nearly five-year-old war there.

Previewing the message Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was to deliver to NATO allies at a meeting here yesterday and today, the official said now is the time to finally defeat the Taliban, who harbored planners of the September 11, 2001, attacks that prompted the U.S. global war on terror.

In addition, NATO’s new top commander, U.S. Army Gen. John Craddock, was presenting ministers with a plan to “rebalance” the force of 35,000, using the more mobile combat units in the southern and eastern regions along the border with Pakistan where combat is expected to be most intense.

Allied officials said Gen. Craddock was seeking 1,500 to 2,000 extra combat troops in addition to the extra brigade provided by the United States and about 800 more from the British. They said he is asking for a couple of combat battalions and some support forces.

The end of winter traditionally has brought an upsurge in attacks by Taliban militants in Afghanistan, and U.S. commanders already have predicted that this spring will be even more violent than last year, when a record number of attacks included nearly 140 suicide bombings.

“We think the upcoming spring in Afghanistan is a pivotal moment in the conflict, and we’re encouraging the allies to do as much as they can as soon as they can,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the planned discussions had not been presented to allies. “The offensive should be our offensive. That’s the offensive we’ve been communicating to the allies.”

The defense official said there are no plans to further increase the U.S. troop commitment to Afghanistan.

About 27,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, the highest number since the start of the war in 2001. About 15,000 of those troops are serving in the NATO-led force, which now totals about 35,000, while the other 12,000 are special operations forces or are training Afghan troops.

Mr. Gates, who was making his first appearance at a NATO defense ministers meeting, began a series of private meetings with his colleagues yesterday.

Mr. Gates has said he thinks there is a need for more military trainers to work with the Afghan army.

The call for a spring offensive comes just three weeks after Mr. Gates made his first trip to Afghanistan, which was followed quickly by his decision to increase U.S. troop levels there by several thousand. He ordered a brigade — or about 3,200 soldiers — from the New York-based 10th Mountain Division to extend their tour in Afghanistan by four months.

Mr. Gates, who took over the job in late December after the resignation of Donald H. Rumsfeld, will spend about two days at the NATO meeting, then go on to Munich for the annual security conference.

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