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Experts Say U.S. May Need A Larger Afghan Troop Increase

The U.S. plans to raise troops numbers in Afghanistan to 60,000
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The United States may need a military buildup in Afghanistan larger than the one President Barack Obama is considering, a group of experts has told the U.S. House of Representatives.

In their testimony on February 12, the analysts said a larger U.S. force might be necessary to turn the tide against the Taliban so long as reluctant NATO allies and a nascent Afghan army are unable to field major reinforcements.

"We must provide most of the additional troops, advisers, and resources to reverse the situation," Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the House Armed Services Committee in written testimony.

"It may well be that the current proposals for 30,000 more U.S. troops are the bare minimum necessary," he said.

Obama, who has made Afghanistan the U.S. military's top priority, is expected to decide soon how many extra forces to send to a combat zone where commanders face an intensifying insurgency from the Taliban and other militant groups.

The Pentagon has proposed increasing the current U.S. presence of 37,000 troops to about 60,000 in coming months in a bid to improve security and facilitate long-term development.

There are also about 30,000 troops from other NATO countries in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned that a larger military presence could backfire if Afghans view Western troops as an occupying force. But he told reporters on February 10 there was no cap on the number of troops that could be sent.

Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations also said higher U.S. troop levels may be necessary in Afghanistan and warned that the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy could mean heavy casualties early on.

"Even when [counterinsurgency] works, it looks bad early. And this will promote a growing debate over the wisdom of the U.S. commitment," Biddle said in written testimony. "It would be prudent to assume that fatality rates of perhaps 50-100 per month could persist for many months, if not years," he said.

There have been 576 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the former Taliban government. U.S. military deaths hit a high of 26 last September. There were 12 deaths in January.

Cordesman did not say how large a force might ultimately be needed in Afghanistan.

Biddle said Afghanistan might need a combined Afghan and Western force of 300,000 troops in southern and eastern provinces where the Taliban is strong. "If any significant fraction of this total must be American, then the resources needed will be very large," he said.