Friday, February 09, 2007

US Bombing campaign intensifies in Afghanistan

By Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY SEVILLE, Spain — The Pentagon is ramping up its bombing campaign in Afghanistan as it plans a major offensive against the resurgent Taliban in the spring. Close-air-support missions flown by U.S. Air Force pilots increased nearly 80% in the first five weeks of 2007 compared with the same period last year, records show. The Air Force plans to send in dozens more precision bomb-targeting systems that allow troops on the ground to call in airstrikes within a few hundred yards of their own position. That technology, called ROVER (Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver), allows troops on the ground to share video with pilots in attack aircraft so they both see the target simultaneously, said Lt. Col. Greg Harbin, one of the lead officers on the Air Force ROVER program. He plans to deliver 50 systems to coalition forces in Afghanistan in March. Along with increasing the effectiveness of airstrikes, the systems will reduce the number of "friendly fire" incidents that have strained relations between U.S. and allied militaries, Harbin said. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said NATO allies agreed Thursday on an Afghan strategy that includes fighting the Taliban, developing the government and economy and training and equipping the Afghan army. The Taliban gains strength each spring, Gates said. The fundamentalist Islamic movement ran Afghanistan until it was ousted by U.S. and allied forces in October 2001. "It's important we knock that back," Gates said of the Taliban's resurgence. He spoke to reporters after meeting in Seville with defense ministers from NATO countries. Last month, President Bush asked Congress to spend $10 billion in Afghanistan over the next two years — $8 billion to train and equip Afghan security forces and $2 billion to fund reconstruction projects. The Pentagon also announced Jan. 25 that 3,200 U.S. soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division will stay in Afghanistan four more months to bolster the force there. There are about 21,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan: 13,000 of them work with NATO troops in the International Security Assistance Force; 8,000 train Afghan troops and mount counterterrorist operations. Two NATO nations, Denmark and Lithuania, agreed Thursday to bolster their small contingents in Afghanistan. Franz-Josef Jung, Germany's defense minister, questioned the need to send more troops to Afghanistan. "I do not think it is right to talk about more and more military means," Jung said. "When the Russians were in Afghanistan, they had 100,000 troops and didn't win." Gates said some NATO nations lifted restrictions on how and where their troops are used. He did not provide specifics on the restrictions, also called caveats. The caveats placed on allied troops have stymied U.S. efforts to counter the Taliban insurgency. Some restrictions involve a refusal to fight in bad weather or in certain parts of the country, said a November report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Gen. James Jones, who heads the U.S. European Command, asked Germany last fall to send troops to southern Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, but Germany declined, according to the report. NATO asked France, Turkey, Italy and Spain to send troops to the south, but they, too, declined. The countries said that they had committed troops to peacekeeping forces in Lebanon or that their own areas of responsibility in Afghanistan remained "restive," according to the CRS report. Though the report noted that problems with caveats remain in Afghanistan, it said the Netherlands had increased its fighting role despite the move's unpopularity with Dutch voters. Coalition nations have been involved in friendly-fire incidents in which their troops have been killed by U.S. or other forces. Harbin, the Air Force officer, said the ROVER system can prevent incidents such as one in which a U.S. pilot mistakenly fired on a British convoy in Afghanistan, killing one British soldier. Other friendly-fire incidents include four Canadians being killed in 2002 and one Canadian killed last September. The Air Force has loaned 12 ROVER systems to British troops.

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