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Afghanistan to ask NATO for bigger army of its own

At the NATO meeting in Romania Thursday, Afghan officials are expected to request money to expand its National Army from 86,000 to 120,000 troops.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 2, 2008

A soldier with the Afghan National Army.

Andy nelson – staff

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KABUL, Afghanistan

Afghan officials will go to the NATO summit in Romania Thursday with a request: pay to increase our national Army by 40 percent. A bigger Army, Afghan officials argue, will allow the US and other coalition members to scale back in the coming years.

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This appeal comes amid pleas from the US and Canada for other NATO members to commit more to the Afghanistan mission, which many analysts say has floundered over the past year for lack of resources and a coherent strategy. France is expected to contribute another 1,000 forces and Germany is likely to make a bigger commitment.

But American and Afghan government sources with knowledge of the expected Afghan proposal say that an increase from the current authorization of 86,000 Afghan Army soldiers to 120,000 is the only way to create an enduring defense against a resurgent Taliban and elusive Al Qaeda operatives.

"There are two big neighbors, Pakistan and Iran, where extremism and fundamentalism is part of their politics," says Helaludin Helal, a former deputy minister at the Ministry of Interior and now a member of the Afghan Parliament who favors a bigger Army but is not among those making the official proposal to NATO this week. "Extremism is taught there, trained there, and they all come to Afghanistan from there."

The lack of NATO consensus for the size of the Afghanistan mission is giving Kabul a chance to make a play for an Army increase – a move it argues will put an Afghan face on an Afghan problem.

Officials on the ground here, including members of the Afghan government, have long said a larger Army is necessary for a country the size of Afghanistan – which is 50 percent larger than Iraq, where the US has funded and trained 183,000 soldiers.

But as recently as this week, US officials said that they didn't think the Afghanistan minister of defense, Abdul Rahim Wardak, would use the forum in Bucharest, Romania, to press for more Afghan forces. And it was unclear what, if any, announcement would be made as a result or if the talks would remain private for now. Sources spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the proposal.

The request for 120,000 is far short of the 200,000 that the Afghan government and American proponents have floated in recent weeks. But the appeal to grow to 120,000 may be far more realistic, say those close to the issue. US Central Command in Tampa, Fla., had also suggested the same number, another source says.