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NATO Commander Sees Afghan Security Gains In 2010

Major General Mart de Kruif
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The arrival of 12,000 extra U.S. combat troops in southern Afghanistan this summer is not likely to bring major security gains to the volatile region until 2010, a top NATO commander has said.

Dutch Major General Mart de Kruif, who commands NATO's 22,300-strong International Security Assistance Force in southern Afghanistan, expects "a significant spike" in violence as fresh U.S. and NATO forces enter the region ahead of Afghan elections due in August.

"I think that what we are doing now is actually planting the seeds and that we'll view a significant increase in the security situation across southern Afghanistan next year," Kruif told Pentagon reporters in a videoconference.

Southern Afghanistan, a six-province area, where NATO forces operate under a command called Regional Command-South, is the country's most violent region. It is also the center of a global opium network believed to generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the Taliban insurgency.

The region is also expected to be a main subject of President Barack Obama's strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is expected to be unveiled next week.

Top NATO and U.S. commander for Afghanistan, U.S. Army General David McKiernan, had said the West is currently facing a stalemate in the country's south.

Experts say a lack of combat troops has allowed the Taliban to extend its influence in villages across heavily populated areas, where Kruif estimates that NATO now controls only about 60 percent of the terrain.

Obama has ordered 12,000 Marines and Army soldiers to be in place by July 1 in the south. U.S. defense officials say that will more than double the number of combat troops in a regional NATO force that consists mainly of noncombat personnel.

The U.S. deployment is part of a larger build-up that defense officials say could lead to a total U.S. force of more than 60,000 troops in Afghanistan by year's end. There are currently 38,000 American troops in the country.

Kruif said he also expects additional forces for the south from other countries including Canada, the Netherlands, Romania, and possibly Britain. "There are more coalition forces coming in," he said without elaborating.

Within the past two years, southern insurgents led by a militant council based across the border in the Pakistani city of Quetta have switched from targeting NATO forces to attacking the local civilian population, mainly with crudely built roadside munitions known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs.

As the region prepares for the arrival of new troops, Kruif said NATO forces are aggressively enhancing their ability to locate IEDs and increasing the use of Special Forces to track and disrupt insurgent bomb-making networks.