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Afghan Government Says Larger Army Needed --> Kabul would like the Afghan National Army to reach a strength of 200,000 soldiers (file photo) (epa) December 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's Defense Ministry says the country needs a 200,000-strong national army to stand against external threats and to tackle the Taliban-led insurgency.

Speaking in Kabul on December 2, Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi said the initial goal -- set in 2001 -- to train around 70,000 Afghan troops no longer applies to Afghanistan's new realities.

"Taking into consideration today's security situation, taking into consideration the balance of forces, 70,000 troops -- that was agreed on at [the international conference in] Bonn -- would not be enough for Afghanistan," Azimi said. "The number of troops, both in the Afghan army and the police should be increased according to the country's needs."

Azimi added that increasing the size of the Afghan National Army is much cheaper than paying for the nearly 50,000 foreign troops that are currently deployed in Afghanistan under the command of NATO and the U.S. military.

Azimi said the cost to pay and equip one foreign soldier is roughly equivalent to providing for 70 Afghan troops.

Afghanistan's current army stands at around 57,000 troops and is on schedule to reach the original 70,000 target in four months.

Azimi told reporters that the Afghan parliament has approved a new security strategy and that the document has been sent to President Hamid Karzai for his signature.

Interior Ministry spokesman Zmarai Bashari told reporters that the security situation is improving slightly in the country as winter approaches.

"The enemy's military actions have been decreasing for two reasons: firstly, the weather is very cold now. Secondly, Afghanistan's security forces are getting stronger every day -- we shouldn't forget that -- the structure and the number of the police and other security forces are developing," Bashari said.

The United States provides most of the military funding, training, and equipment for the Afghan National Army.

Azimi said that the United States will soon start shipping NATO-standard weapons and helicopters to Afghanistan to replace the national army's old, Soviet-era arms and other hardware.

In the past two years, Taliban-led violence has been increasing in the country, and some 10,000 people -- including at least 300 foreign soldiers -- have been killed in military actions, roadside bombs, or suicide attacks.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)
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