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Afghanistan: Army Reaches 70,000 Mark, As Taliban Vows New Offensive

The growing ranks of the Afghan National Army (epa) Officials in Kabul say the Afghan National Army soon will number 70,000 combat-ready soldiers -- the strongest the force has been since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

The buildup has come amid urgent calls within NATO for more combat troops to be sent to assist counterterror and stabilization efforts in that country. But the Afghan government says it will be years before Afghan forces are able to provide security throughout the country by themselves -- and the Taliban says it's not worried about the growth of the army.

In early 2002, just weeks after the collapse of the Taliban regime, the transitional government in Kabul announced a bold schedule to build the Afghan National Army from scratch. That schedule called for the recruitment and training of 70,000 Afghan soldiers before the presidential election in the fall of 2004.

But that target proved to be overly optimistic. Until this year, desertions were so high among the fully trained Afghan soldiers that Kabul had difficulty maintaining a force of 30,000 troops.

Now, six years after the 70,000-soldier announcement, the goal is finally within reach.

General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the recruitment, training, and retention of Afghan soldiers during the winter has been better than ever.

"We have succeeded to bring about enormous changes in the quality and quantity of troops in the Afghan National Army compared to previous years. From [about early May], we will be able to have at least 70,000 soldiers deployed to fight against the enemy," Azimi says. "Last year, this number was about 30,000 soldiers. And our army is very well equipped this year. We have obtained new weapons and other military equipment. Our air force has been reestablished. And we have formed new commando and engineering battalions."

Spring Offensive?

Taliban spokesman Qari Yusef Ahmadi, in an exclusive telephone interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, dismisses Azimi's remarks about the strengthening of the Afghan National Army.

"They can't do anything," Ahmadi says. "They have been claiming for years that they are going to have 70,000 soldiers, but our view is that these are only paid soldiers who are temporary workers. These people aren't able to fight against our mujahedin, who are fighting jihad on the basis of their faith."

Ahmadi claims the Taliban is planning a series of attacks in the coming days, called Operation Unforgettable Lesson, that is part of a spring offensive.

"It will cover all of Afghanistan -- the big cities and the small cities," Ahmadi warns. "We will attack all those areas where our enemy is present. We will use our old tactics as well as new tactics. I can't disclose what these new tactics are because that is a military secret, but you will see when it starts."

Ahmadi also tells Radio Free Afghanistan that Taliban militants will focus their attacks on military bases where foreign troops have been deployed. He says Taliban fighters will try to refrain from carrying out attacks in situations where there are many civilians.

"Everything will be included in this operation," Ahmadi says. "We will be looking at an area first and then we will attack according to the situation in each particular area. Suicide attacks will be included."

For his part, however, General Azimi dismisses Ahmadi's remarks as an attempt by the Taliban to manipulate public opinion in Afghanistan.

"Propaganda plays a significant role in military operations, especially in guerrilla and militia fighting," Azimi says. "It is a very strategic tactic. When the enemy does not have the ability to defeat a well-organized military force, they start trying to terrify innocents. [The Taliban] now fights a psychological battle. This is their pre-operational battle."

International Presence

The strengthening of the Afghan National Army comes as the United States, Britain, and Canada have sought to get other countries in the NATO alliance to send more soldiers into the combat zones of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

U.S. Vice President Cheney and Afghan President Karzai on March 20

Last week, during a visit to Kabul by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that the growth of the Afghan Army will take some pressure off of NATO. But with militant violence on the rise, Karzai said international security forces were still needed to help provide security throughout the country.

"The continuation of NATO's role in Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism -- and providing stability for Afghanistan -- is very, very important. The Afghan army is also doing very, very well," Karzai said. "In my meetings with the Afghan people, I find out that the army is more and more seen as a force that brings stability. So as the Afghan army gets stronger and stronger, [there will be less] pressure on international security forces. Until then, the cooperation between Afghanistan and the rest of the international community is a must -- both for the war against terrorism and for stability in Afghanistan."

Karzai also warned that Kabul would be dependent "for a long time" on international security forces to help train and equip Afghan government forces.

"We like an effective continuation of the two missions that we have here. One is the fight against terrorism. The other is the rebuilding of Afghanistan -- and especially the rebuilding of the security institutions; the army," Karzai said. "As it is a gradual improvement on our side, it is also a gradual reduction of responsibility on the shoulders of the international community; but that is not going to be [completed] anytime soon. Afghanistan will need for a long time support from the international community in the rebuilding exercises here in Afghanistan and in the strengthening of the Afghan security institutions."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Freshta Jalalzai contributed to this report from Prague