WASHINGTON – President Bush, as part of his upcoming budget package, will ask Congress for $7 billion to $8 billion in new funds for Afghanistan to pay for security and rebuilding projects in the war-damaged nation, the White House said Thursday.
U.S. officials are expecting a resurgence of the Taliban this spring. Earlier this week, the Defense Department said that 3,200 soldiers from the New York-based 10th Mountain Division already in Afghanistan would have their tour extended by four months.
On Thursday, Gen. David Richards, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, said NATO-led troops battling resurgent Taliban militants will shortly be reinforced with another combat brigade. The NATO-led force, which is bracing for renewed fighting with Taliban militants this spring, is about 20 percent short of the troops levels pledged by its contributing nations.
Casualties in Afghanistan have risen sharply in recent months as the Taliban has stepped up operations and suicide attacks. Some 4,000 people died in insurgency-related violence in Afghanistan last year, according to numbers from Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials.
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said Thursday that approximately $2 billion will be sought for military assistance.
Budget figures for the next financial year, starting Oct. 1, will be released on Feb. 5. But McCormack said the administration decided to talk about the numbers for Afghanistan because that issue will dominate a Friday NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will attend.
"We certainly hope the alliance will match those figures, if not in actual dollar figures but in terms of their commitment to do everything they can to fight the Taliban and to build Afghanistan so they have a more prosperous, stable country," McCormack said.
Among other issues, Rice will raise with her colleagues are the divisions within the alliance on burden sharing in Afghanistan. More NATO countries have shown a greater willingness than others to send troops to areas of conflict.
"It is a fundamental issue," McCormack said.
He also said there is a pressing need to address the problem of high levels of opium poppy production in Afghanistan.
"Everybody understands that it's a problem that needs to be addressed," McCormack said. "We don't want an Afghanistan (economy) that is based solely on production of narcotics and international aid."
Meanwhile, border relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have deteriorated recently, with top officials trading accusations on which side is responsible for the increase in Taliban attacks.
Outgoing National Intelligence Director John Negroponte was highly critical of Pakistan in remarks before Congress last week, saying the country has become a sanctuary for Taliban and al-Qaida militants who cross into neighboring Afghanistan to kill American and NATO troops.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said on Wednesday that his nation views the problems in Afghanistan as an internal issue, and repeated Pakistan's assertion that it has been wildly successful in fighting terrorism.