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Taliban assault heats up US troop debate

A massive attack on US troops in a remote part of east Afghanistan has added more heat to the debate about the level of American engagement in the country.


By Lisa Millar for The World Today

October 5, 2009

At least eight American soldiers and several Afghan police officers were killed when hundreds of Taliban militants launched a daylight attack with mortars and machines guns on their compounds.

The commander of US troops wants another 40,000 soldiers added to the 68,000 already on duty there, a decision US President Barack Obama is considering.

America marks the eighth anniversary of being at war in Afghanistan this week. It is an anniversary that comes amid intense debate over America's place in the country and its current strategy.

Brigadier General Eric Tremblay is the spokesman for the International Security Assistance Forces. When he spoke to reporters on the weekend, the battle was still going on.

"We are on the second day of the operation. Reinforcement has been provided," he said.

"Quick reaction forces with the proper surveillance on the ground and normal framework operations are being conducted as we speak in the villages."

Back in Washington there is a fight - not as deadly - but just as serious.

The US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has asked for more troops, suggesting there will be a terrible mission failure if his wish is not granted.

Mr Obama is mulling over the decision. The two men met on the tarmac in Copenhagen just days ago, the first time since General McChrystal delivered his grim report on the military prospects.

'Not just about Al Qaeda'

General Anthony Zinni was once head of US Central Command. He has joined the voices urging the President to send additional troops.

"I do think we need those troops and I think General McChrystal has made an honest and thorough assessment as to what you need," he said.

"It begins with security. You can't do all the other things without it."

Americans are losing interest in winning a war in Afghanistan but Anthony Zinni says there is a bigger picture.

"I think we have to remember this is not just about Al Qaeda and the Taliban," he said.

"We have two nations out there with nuclear weapons; one of which had the Taliban 65 miles from their capital.

"We have the Taliban and others trying to provoke some sort of conflict between these two nations.

"We also have a Taliban that is stretching their influence into central Asia."

Even if the President decides to bump up the number of boots on the ground, he could face a battle in Congress.

Senator Carl Levin is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee and he is opposed to deploying more troops.

"I would not commit to more combat troops at this time. There's a lot of other things that need to be done to show resolve," Senator Levin said.

"What we need a surge of is Afghan troops. There is a marine captain out in Helmand Province who put it this way: He says our achilles heel is a shortage of Afghan troops.

"When I was in Helmand Province just a month ago, we were told by the local folks what they want is their Afghan Army to be strengthened and the ratio of marines to Afghan soldiers when we were down in Helmand Province was five marines for one Afghan soldier.

"That is exactly the wrong ratio. It ought to be reversed from that."

Mr Obama's own national security adviser, Jim Jones, says the discussion going on inside the White House is about far more than simply increasing troop numbers.

A decision on the wider strategy in Afghanistan is expected within the next few weeks.