Moscow (AFP) Jan 20, 2010
US military planes are flying over Russia with supplies for Afghanistan under a deal signed last summer, the US ambassador to Moscow said Wednesday, denying claims that the deal had broken down.
"There are many incorrect reports that this agreement is barely functioning, that supposedly there was only one flight of a US plane," John Beyrle said in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio.
"In fact there were five, and 11 more are planned," he added.
The number of flights given by Beyrle was still far smaller than the maximum number envisioned by the agreement, signed in July during a summit between US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev.
The accord permitted up to 4,500 military flights per year carrying troops, arms and other supplies.
In November, the US State Department said the deal was still not being fully implemented as "logistical details" were still being thrashed out.
The Afghan transit deal was regarded as one of the achievements of Obama's efforts to "reset" US-Russia ties, and its apparent inability to get off the ground led to speculation about behind-the-scenes difficulties.
Beyrle said the United States would make more use of its transit agreement with Russia in 2010 as Obama stepped up operations against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and sent thousands more troops to Afghanistan.
"I think we will use this agreement very much this year, because as you know, President Obama has announced that a large number of forces will be sent to Afghanistan, and the air corridor over Russia will indeed be very important for supplying our troops," Beyrle said.
The importance of the Russia air corridor has increased amid growing unrest and attacks on NATO convoys delivering supplies through Pakistan, Afghanistan's neighbour to the south.
earlier related report
"This is bullshit," he told AFP in an exclusive interview at "Kamp Holland" in the provincial capital Tirin Kot, as his government debates pulling out of Afghanistan at the end of July.
Any country that takes over -- and other international forces in Afghanistan -- would do well to emulate the Dutch emphasis on winning hearts and minds over killing insurgents, Van Uhm said.
His comments come against the background of a build-up of forces that will lift US and NATO troop levels to over 150,000 by the middle of the year -- nearly nine years after the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban.
The hardline Islamists have staged a comeback, mounting an increasingly aggressive and deadly insurgency against President Hamid Karzai's government and international forces.
"We did fight the Taliban, we have lost 21 soldiers here, we have many wounded," said Van Uhm, the brother of Dutch military chief Peter van Uhm, whose son was killed by a roadside bomb in Uruzgan in 2008.
He said the nature of the fighting since the Dutch took the lead role in the southern province in 2006 had changed as the Taliban "learned that when you are engaging my troops, you will not win".
They now attacked indirectly, through roadside bombs and suicide bombers, across the province, which is about the size of the Netherlands, with a population of about 360,000.
"We do go out, we go out often, we fight against them and their way of doing their fight has changed," Marc van Uhm, the commander of Dutch forces in the province, said.
The insulting charge of avoiding the fight has been made by critics of the so-called "Dutch model," which stresses the "three Ds" of defence, development and diplomacy.
But the tactics -- which Van Uhm said he would rather describe as the "Uruzgan model" because other foreign forces including the Australians were involved -- have mostly won international respect.
NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is itself adopting the Uruzgan scheme, the general said.
"The strategy now is not about killing Taliban anymore, it's about protecting the people and we protect the people with a three-D integrated approach."
The Dutch civil representative in Task Force Uruzgan, Michel Rentenaar, who was present at the interview, played down the Dutch role, saying other nations were working along similar lines, though he added: "We may be a little ahead of the curve."
"Let's face it, anybody who can read a history book knows we are not going to win this militarily only.
"If you can take away the grip the Taliban has on the population by giving people a little bit of hope for the future by bringing some development, then you've probably won the fight without a shot."
The general said most fighters grouped under the name Taliban were "young guys who don't have a job and the Taliban pays them to fight for them.
"They are not ideological, they are just fighting us to get money. If we were able to provide them jobs, enable them to make a living another way, they don't have to fight."
Reflecting a similar view, Karzai's office said Sunday the president would announce a new plan to make peace with insurgents, offering them economic incentives to stop fighting.
Karzai intended to announce the plan before a conference with Afghanistan's international backers in London on January 28, his spokesman Waheed Omar told reporters.
Rentenaar, a veteran diplomat who has served in several hotspots including Iraq, said the Taliban had already lost their grip in some areas where troops had secured zones and pushed them to the outskirts.
This is known as an "ink spot" approach, in which key areas are secured first and development projects put in place after negotiations with local leaders.
The "ink spots" are then linked to create one large Taliban-free zone.
Neither the general nor Rentenaar would comment directly on the political wrangling in The Hague over the future of Dutch troops in Afghanistan.
Rentenaar said that while the Dutch government had announced it would no longer be the lead nation in Uruzgan as of August 1, it was still in the process of deciding what form, if any, its involvement would take.
"All options are still on the table. It is very clear that the Netherlands government has said it has multi-annual commitments to development in Uruzgan and so we are not leaving in that sense," he said.
The Netherlands has a total of 2,100 troops in Afghanistan, with 1,500 in Uruzgan.
NATO and the United States have 113,000 troops in the country, with another 40,000 being deployed over the course of this year.
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