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US forces under strain but not at 'tipping point': Mullen

Germany to extend Afghanistan mission: sources
Berlin (AFP) Nov 18, 2009 - Germany's cabinet decided Wednesday to extend by one year the mandate for its unpopular military mission in Afghanistan, government sources told AFP. The extension to the deployment, which has seen German soldiers engaged alongside NATO and US forces in the army's heaviest fighting since World War II, must now be approved by parliament before the mandate expires in December. Chancellor Angela Merkel's new coalition government had already agreed to extend the mandate in their government programme drawn up after elections in September. Germany currently has around 4,300 troops in Afghanistan, based in the relatively peaceful north of the country, which has become more violent in recent months. The German contingent is the third-biggest in a 100,000-strong international force including 65,000 under NATO command but Berlin has come under pressure from its allies to send more troops for a counter-insurgency push.

On Friday, Berlin announced it would send an extra 120 troops to the northern province of Kunduz in mid-January. However, Chancellor Angela Merkel has refused to even consider sending more before an international conference in early 2010 on the war. Germany's troops levels are currently capped at 4,500. The mission is deeply unpopular at home. The cabinet also decided to scrap a mission to send AWACS surveillance planes to Afghanistan after Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan refused to allow NATO to fly them through their airspace. The German army's participation in a mission to fight piracy off the coast of Lebanon was also extended by six months. Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle were due to make a statement on army deployment around 2:00 pm (1300 GMT).

Danish soldier dies from Afghan bomb wounds
Copenhagen (AFP) Nov 18, 2009 - A Danish soldier seriously wounded in a bomb explosion in Afghanistan in late October died on Wednesday, the Danish armed forces announced. Rune Westy Zacharias Nielsen, 22, was on foot patrol when the blast occurred near his unit's Barakzai base, in southern Helmand province, where Taliban insurgents are active. His death brought to 27 the number of Danish troops killed since international forces deployed in Afghanistan in late 2001 in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the United States. More than 700 Danish soldiers are taking part in NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Most of them are under British command.

British soldier killed in Afghanistan
London (AFP) Nov 18, 2009 - A British soldier was shot and killed Wednesday in Afghanistan, taking the number of British deaths there this year alone to 98, the Ministry of Defence said. The soldier, from the Royal Military Police, was killed during operations in the Babaji area in southern Helmand province, the ministry said. His family have been informed. "It is with deep sadness I must inform you that a soldier from The Royal Military Police was shot and killed this morning on operations," said a spokesman for Task Force Helmand, Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield. "One of our fellow soldiers taken from us in the course of his duty, and who we will remember," he said. The death brings the total number of British killed in Afghanistan to 235 since the US-led invasion in 2001 to oust the Taliban regime. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered Monday to host an international conference on Afghanistan in London in January, which he said could set a timeframe for a gradual security handover from 2010 to Afghan forces.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Nov 17, 2009
Top military officer Admiral Mike Mullen said on Tuesday that US forces were under strain from fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but were not at a "tipping point."

The mental fitness of American troops has come under intense scrutiny after a shooting rampage at Fort Hood by an army psychiatrist this month and amid a rise in suicides and depression.

Suicides in the US Army are on track to reach a new high this year. With 140 suspected cases reported among active duty soldiers since the start of 2009, the number of suicides was already at last year's level, the army's vice chief of staff, General Peter Chiarelli, told reporters on Tuesday.

But Mullen told a gathering of top business executives that he stood by a previous comment that the military was not at a breaking point despite two protracted wars.

"I still even subsequent to that don't think we're near a tipping point but," he said at the event sponsored by the Wall Street Journal, adding, "I would not want to understate the seriousness of the stress issue for individuals and for families."

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mullen said "the health of the force" was one of his top priorities and that he also had been impressed with the resilience displayed by many soldiers and families.

earlier related report
Majority of Americans see Afghan war not worth cost: poll
Washington (AFP) Nov 17, 2009 - Support for the US mission in Afghanistan has slipped to a new low, with 44 percent of Americans now saying the war there has been worth the cost, according to a new poll released Tuesday.

Amid mounting divisiveness over what was once one of President Barack Obama's top foreign policy issues, the poll by The Washington Post and ABC News also showed ratings for how he has handled the mission there eroding, to 45 percent approving of how he is dealing with Afghanistan and 47 disapproving, compared to 63 percent approval last year.

The numbers come as Obama grapples with whether to send more US troops to Afghanistan to boost the fight against a growing Taliban-led insurgency, just a week after a stopover at a US military base in Alaska at the start of his Asia trip when he told US troops he will get "public support back home" for the mission.

Only 44 percent now say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting -- the fewest since early 2007 -- and 52 percent say it has not, up 13 points from its low of last December, the news outlets' polling divisions said.

And while 55 percent expressed confidence that Obama will forge a successful Afghan strategy, Americans appeared evenly split on whether the president should order large numbers of new troops into the country, with 46 percent supporting a larger US force and 45 percent a smaller one.

Just as many also appeared to trust Republicans in Congress to handle the war as trust the president.

While divisions were evident about the war, Americans clearly doubted the reliability of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was declared winner of a second term this month after a fraud-marred election.

"Just 26 percent of Americans see Karzai as a reliable partner for the United States, and just 38 percent think his government will be able to train an effective army to take over security at some point," ABC News reported.

As for whether the risk of a terrorist attack in the United States would rise or fall if US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, nearly two-thirds of Americans said the risk stayed the same whether or not the troops went home.

The poll of 1,001 residents was conducted by telephone and has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

earlier related report
Afghan village armies fight Taliban
Kunduz, Afghanistan (AFP) Nov 18, 2009 - War-weary villagers in northern Afghanistan are taking up arms against insurgents, sick of having the Taliban encroach on their once peaceful patch of the country.

In villages across Kunduz province, where a misdirected NATO air strike killed 90 civilians in September, tribal elders say they have had enough of being caught in the middle of an escalating war.

So they are grabbing their guns, forming their own armies and getting rid of the Taliban insurgents who took control of their region.

"We were fed up with the Taliban," Abdul Jalil Tawakal, a tribal elder from Qala-i-Zal district told AFP.

He and other local leaders have formed a militia with one aim: to get rid of the Taliban and the NATO forces that have been battling them for months.

"Both the Taliban and international forces were killing us, this was too much. So we picked up our guns and forced the Taliban out of our village," he said. "Now we are living a peaceful life."

The area came to the Taliban's attention with the opening earlier this year of a supply route for US and NATO troops funnelling fuel and other materiel from Tajikistan over the border to military bases in Afghanistan.

The massive convoys -- sometimes hundreds of trucks -- drew Taliban attacks, which in turn drew international forces, notably Germans who have 4,500 troops deployed in Kunduz, trapping locals in the crossfire.

The situation reached a nadir in September when German troops ordered an air strike after the Taliban hijacked two fuel trucks and made villagers in the Aliabad area syphon off the load when they became bogged down in a river.

The strike and its high death toll made global news and highlighted the degree to which the Taliban had taken over large swathes of the province, killing police at checkpoints and intimidating villagers.

But while Tawakal says his local militia has driven off the Taliban -- and their international foes fighting to defend the remit of the Afghan government -- most of Kunduz is still troubled by the spreading insurgency.

Taliban activity used to be confined largely to the southern strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces but the London-based International Council for Security and Development says the insurgents have expanded their permanent footprint across 80 percent of Afghanistan.

Kunduz residents say the Taliban have set up "shadow governments" in areas of the province.

"In Chahar Dara the Taliban have a government, they are helping the people settle disputes, they collect taxes from the people," Nematullah, who lives in Chahar Dara told AFP.

The rebels freely patrol villages in the troubled district, he said.

A Western aid official said the Taliban "have become the proprietor of dispute resolution" in many areas of the country where the government had little or no presence.

"They are able to deliver at a very local level a horrible form of justice, rough justice. And for many people in this country, any justice is better than none at all," he said, speaking on condition he not be named.

Kunduz provincial governor Mohammad Omar told AFP the insurgency has gained pace in his province since earlier this year.

"The security has worsened in Kunduz," he said.

Like many Afghan officials, he blamed insurgents based in neighbouring Pakistan for orchestrating much of the violence, but recognised that a number of domestic factors were contributing to the spread of Taliban influence.

High unemployment, the absence of security forces and a lack of reconstruction projects aided Taliban infiltration, he said.

"We have only 1,000 police officers for the entire province. This is not enough," Omar said, adding that Taliban attacks have killed more than 60 policemen in the past three years.

"Most young men are unemployed and the enemy exploits this, paying them to fight for them," Omar said.

The mounting violence in the north poses new challenges for NATO and the United States as President Barack Obama decides whether to add up to 40,000 more troops to the 100,000 international forces already in the country.

Governor Omar said it is not too late to regain control of the province as long as additional security forces and resources are put in place.

He praised the defensive actions of local people, such as those in Qala-i-Zal, but said it must be backed by the Kabul government.

"In some areas people have voluntarily picked up arms against the Taliban. This has been a successful process and we hope to help these people," he said.

This month, Afghan security forces backed by NATO launched a series of offensives in some of the most troubled areas of the province, saying they killed more than 130 rebels.

Operations in several districts are ongoing, defence ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi told AFP.

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Pakistan says towns cleared in Taliban offensive
Sararogha, Pakistan (AFP) Nov 17, 2009
Pakistan's military said Tuesday that its latest offensive against the Taliban had captured most of the towns and population centres once under militant control in South Waziristan. Pakistan dispatched 30,000 troops into battle on October 17, vowing to crush the Tehreek-e-Taliban network and blaming the faction for some of the deadliest bomb attacks that have killed more than 2,500 people in ... read more

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