Saturday, April 11, 2009

Poland to boost Afghan troops by 20 percent

Poland will boost its military deployment to Afghanistan by 20 percent to help secure elections in August and combat deteriorating security, Polish President Lech Kaczynski said Wednesday.

Kaczynski was in Kabul on an unannounced visit to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai and some of the 1,600 Polish troops serving in the NATO-led force that is helping to fight an insurgency waged by Al-Qaeda-linked extremists.

"We are increasing our troops by 20 percent, especially direct combat troops," he told a joint news conference with Karzai in remarks translated from Polish. "I'll sign that strategy after I return."

Poland, a member of NATO, said last month it planned to send 400 more troops to Afghanistan by mid-April, partly to help secure the August presidential election, but the decision was awaiting a final go-ahead from the president.

Kaczynski's announcement Wednesday of a 20 percent boost in numbers would mean an extra 320 soldiers.

Kaczynski said the troops were also necessary because of "deteriorating" security in the eastern province of Ghazni, where Polish soldiers are working with their US counterparts.

The president was due in Ghazni after talks with Karzai on a one-day trip to Afghanistan, his first to the strife-torn nation.

His visit, days after a NATO summit recommitted itself to helping Afghanistan, came as NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) announced that one of its soldiers was killed in the south.

ISAF did not release the nationality of the troop who died in the south, becoming the fifth to be killed in action in the past week.

In another insurgency-linked incident, a roadside bomb blew up on the outskirts of the southern city of Kandahar Wednesday, striking two civilian vehicles and wounding six people, a provincial official said.

Kaczynski echoed statements by other NATO leaders at the summit, saying Afghanistan could not again be allowed to become a base for Al-Qaeda as it had been under the 1996-2001 Taliban regime.

"We are with those countries who are determined to make sure that peace and security stability prevails in Afghanistan," he said.

Kaczynski was the second European head of state to visit this week after German Chancellor Angela Merkel toured Monday.

NATO commands 58,000 troops from 42 countries in the alliance's most ambitious military mission, which involves beating back Taliban and other insurgents while helping the corruption-plagued government take control.

The alliance's ISAF operates alongside a US-led coalition and Afghan forces in a massive security operation that has been unable to tame the insurgency, which reached new heights last year.

Poland's boost in troop numbers will make it one of the lead contributors to ISAF alongside the United States, Britain, Germany, France and Italy.

Washington has around 38,000 troops in Afghanistan and has long urged NATO allies to boost their deployments to turn around a deteriorating situation.

President Barack Obama has pledged 17,000 more troops for the main battlefields in the south where several districts are out of government control.

He has also announced about 4,000 military trainers as part of US-led efforts to build up the Afghan forces so they can take over security duties from their international counterparts.

The reinforcements are part of a sweeping strategy unveiled by Obama last month to give impetus in the flagging war in Afghanistan more than seven years after the ouster of the Taliban.

The US plan also focuses on eliminating Al-Qaeda bases across the border in Pakistan, which support fighters in Afghanistan, and on ramping up civilian reconstruction efforts.

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