Afghanistan offensive pushed

Thursday, February 8th 2007, 5:36 am

By: News On 6

SEVILLE, Spain (AP) _ The United States and its allies must launch their own offensive this spring against the Taliban in Afghanistan, a senior defense official said Thursday, calling this a pivotal time in the nearly 5-year-old war there.

Previewing the message Defense Secretary Robert Gates will deliver to NATO allies at a meeting here later Thursday and Friday, the official said now is the time to finally defeat the Taliban, who harbored planners of the September 11, 2001, attacks that prompted U.S. global war on terror.

The end of winter has traditionally brought an upsurge in attacks by Taliban militants in Afghanistan, and U.S. commanders have already predicted that this spring will be even more violent than last year when a record number of attacks included nearly 140 suicide bombings.

``We think the upcoming spring in Afghanistan is a pivotal moment in the conflict, and we're encouraging the allies to do as much as they can as soon as they can,'' said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the planned discussions had not yet been presented to allies. ``The offensive should be our offensive. That's the offensive we've been communicating to the allies.''

Speaking en route to Seville, where Gates will make his first appearance at a NATO defense ministers meeting, the official said there currently are no plans to further increase the U.S. troop commitment to Afghanistan.

It was not clear, however, whether U.S. Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, who took over in December as NATO's supreme commander of operations, will seek some additional troops from the NATO allies.

Gates has said he believes there is a need for more military trainers to work with the Afghan Army.

The call for a spring offensive comes just three weeks after Gates made his first trip to Afghanistan, which was followed quickly by his decision to increase U.S. troops levels there by several thousand. He ordered a brigade _ or about 3,200 soldiers _ from the New York-based 10th Mountain Division to extend their tour in Afghanistan by four months.

Gates, who took over the job in late December after the resignation of Donald H. Rumsfeld, will spend about two days at the NATO meeting, then go on to Munich for the annual security conference.

The defense official said Gates has no plans to meet with Iranian leaders who are expected to attend the Munich conference.

``Nothing is going to happen that would be inconsistent with our policy, and we're not pursuing bilateral dialogues with Iran right now,'' the official said.

However, Gates is expected to meet with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. The two may discuss current U.S. plans to deploy its missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

``We will try to explain, reassure them again, that it doesn't significantly affect them,'' said the official. ``This is an opportunity to explain things.''

The talks to place a radar system in the Czech Republic and a missile interceptor site in Poland, have raised concerns among other nations in the region, and sparked criticism from Russia.

The U.S. has offered assurances that the installations would be meant to deal with a potential threat from Iran.

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