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U.S. Bolsters Forces in Afghanistan

The U.S. military has doubled the number of its soldiers embedded inside the Afghan army (search), a spokesman said Sunday, bolstering a force that's supposed to relieve American and NATO (search) troops in warlord-plagued provinces and along the Pakistani border.

A group of 288 U.S. National Guard soldiers arrived in Afghanistan on Friday and Saturday to serve as tactical trainers with the Afghan National Army, joining about 300 already embedded with Afghan units, Maj. Eric Bloom told The Associated Press.

"They have begun the one-week training program before they deploy to the field to meet their (Afghan) counterparts," Bloom said.

Lt. Gen. David Barno, the top commander of American forces in Afghanistan, requested the extra troops to accelerate the training of a 70,000-strong government force designed to tackle renegade faction leaders and remnants of the ousted Taliban (search).

Meanwhile, a caller identifying himself as a former defense minister for the ousted Taliban regime said that Afghanistan's harshest winter in years is curbing Taliban attacks on U.S. and government forces, insisting the guerrilla campaign will resume once the weather eases.

"We will step up attacks as the weather changes," the caller who said he was Mullah Obaidullah Akhund told The Associated Press. "The Taliban movement is active under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Omar (search). And Taliban will fight till the last Talib is alive."

Obaidullah, regarded as an associate of the elusive Taliban supreme leader, purportedly spoke in a satellite phone call from an undisclosed location. It was not possible to independently verify his identity.

The U.S. military says that three years after the fall of the Taliban the hardline militia's resistance is waning. The military says it is still conducting operations during the traditionally quieter winter months but has reported few contacts with insurgents. Much of the country is immobilized by freezing temperatures and heavy snow.

The bad weather "has slowed us down some, but it hasn't stopped us carrying out security operations," said U.S. spokesman Maj. Steve Wollman. "Helicopters give us a great advantage to get over snow-covered roads."

U.S. and Afghan officials insist that many Taliban have signaled their readiness to make peace. Obaidullah, however, claimed no Taliban representatives has had talks "with invaders."

"We consider jihad is the only way to force them leave our country. We will fight with them. Dialogue is not a solution," he said.

With both the United States and Britain considering a long-term "strategic partnership" with Afghanistan, it is unclear just when the new Afghan force will allow foreign troops to begin reducing their expensive deployment here since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

Starting in March, six battalions are to be trained simultaneously with the aim of having the entire force ready by December 2006, nine months earlier than originally planned, officials told AP earlier this month.

Barno has suggested that the American contingent of 17,000 could be trimmed this year if a reconciliation drive with Taliban followers takes off, though there is scant evidence that it is producing results.

However, U.S. commanders insist the new troops are proving excellent allies in combat operations against militants near the Pakistani borders and that the multiethnic army is accepted by villagers in the Pashtun-dominated south, where the Taliban drew their main strength.

Bloom said the new arrivals are being schooled on the communications equipment used to call in air strikes from U.S. warplanes. The course also includes advise on driving on the country's dangerous roads and introductions to Afghan military etiquette and Dari, one of Afghanistan's two main languages.

About 16 trainers are assigned to each new Afghan battalion, helping with their 14-week basic training and staying on as mentors to their officers when they are deployed.

Bloom said the number of American trainers would increase again this summer, when control of the more than 1,200-strong multinational task force in charge of the training passes from the 76th Brigade of the Indiana National Guard to a Florida unit.

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