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Taliban fight stalled while U.S. mulls troop surge

An Afghan child heads home with his cattle in Mian Poshteh in Helmand Province, Nov. 22, 2009.

MANPREET ROMANA/MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images

The fight against a resurgent Taliban is stalling while military planners await word from U.S. President Barack Obama about the future scope of the war, Afghanistan's military chief warns.

In blunt comments to The Globe and Mail, Afghan Minister of Defence Abdul Wardak made clear he's growing impatient with Mr. Obama's drawn-out decision process and that some ground operations have been put on hold as battle planners await an announcement before they green-light new manoeuvres.

"There is a lot on hold right now as we await the decision," Mr. Wardak said. "That and the long election process has really delayed everything."

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Mr. Obama has been mulling a proposal from General Stanley McChrystal, commander of Western forces in the country, that calls for thousands more U.S. troops to battle the insurgency and assist domestic forces as they grow into a professional army capable of defending the nation.

During a speech over the weekend, Mr. Wardak called Mr. Obama's decision process "long-awaited and overly elaborated."

As if to up the ante, he also announced plans to expand the Afghanistan National Army from 93,000 to 240,000, a goal mentioned in the McChrystal proposal that would require thousands of extra U.S. trainers - and Mr. Obama's blessing.

"It can be achieved and it will be achieved," Mr. Wardak said of the goal. "We know that the international community is running out of patience here. We feel ashamed because one of the few things our people have taken pride in over the years is our ability to fiercely defend ourselves."

Mr. Wardak's comments break from those of coalition leaders, who have taken pains to strike a more diplomatic tone regarding Mr. Obama's decision.

The United States has already deployed 68,000 Americans to the country, joining roughly 42,000 international troops. "Any additional forces that come to us in the next months or the next year will make life inordinately easier," said Canadian Major-General Mike Ward, deputy commander of a new NATO training mission responsible for expanding Afghan army and police forces. "They would be very welcome. I wouldn't pretend that all is lost if we don't get everything we've asked for, but what Gen. McChrystal has asked for is what we need."

The U.S. President has frequently rebuffed charges that he's "dithering" on the troop increase, insisting that he wants to see clear benchmarks and exit strategies before he throws more bodies into a fight that seems to have hit a stalemate in many regions of the country.

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According to NATO statistics, violence across Afghanistan has reached heights not seen since the U.S.-led invasion eight years ago as insurgents avoid firefights and revert almost exclusively to laying explosive booby-traps.

Ambitions to expand the army and police garnered new urgency Thursday when President Hamid Karzai said during his inauguration speech that he wants Afghan security forces to take sole responsibility for defending the nation within five years. The inauguration itself was a vital test of the national security forces, as they took responsibility for securing Kabul from Taliban attacks during the ceremony.

While violence was thought to be inevitable, the capital remained free of bomb blasts or gunfire for several days before and after the event. Throughout the country, national security forces are already responsible for eight provinces, a number NATO expects to climb in the coming years.

"It will be a tremendous achievement when they don't need us any more," Gen. Ward said. "And it's already happening in some parts of the country."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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