6 years later, US expands Afghan base

( AP ) - Six years after the first U.S. bombs began falling on Afghanistan's Taliban government and its al-Qaida guests, America is planning for a long stay.

Originally envisioned as a temporary home for invading U.S. forces, the sprawling American base at Bagram, a former Soviet outpost in the shadow of the towering Hindu Kush mountains, is growing in size by nearly a third.

Today the U.S. has about 25,000 troops in the country, and other NATO nations contribute another 25,000, more than three times the number of international troops in the country four years ago, when the Taliban appeared defeated.

The Islamic militia has come roaring back since then, and 2007 has been the battle's bloodiest year yet.

Barnett R. Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University, said U.S. leaders in Washington "utterly failed" to understand what was needed to consolidate that original Taliban rout, which started with airstrikes on Oct. 7, 2001, less than a month after the Sept. 11 attacks in Washington and New York.

"The Bush administration did not see Afghanistan as a long-term commitment, and its leaders deceived themselves into thinking they had won an irreversible victory. They did not consider Afghanistan important and always intended to focus on Iraq," he said."Now the U.S. and international community have fallen way behind, and the Taliban are winning strategically, even if we defeat them in every tactical engagement," he added.

At Bagram, new barracks will help accommodate the record number of U.S. troops in the country.

"We've grown in our commitment to Afghanistan by putting another brigade (of troops) here, and with that we know that we're going to have an enduring presence," said Col. Jonathan Ives. "So this is going to become a long-term base for us, whether that means five years, 10 years - we don't know."

Insurgents have launched more than 100 suicide attacks this year, an unprecedented pace, including a bombing in Kabul on Saturday against a U.S. convoy that killed an American soldier and four Afghan civilians - the third suicide blast in Kabul in a week.More than 5,100 people - mostly militants - have died in insurgency related violence so far this year, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials. That far outpaces last year's violence, when the AP count topped 4,000 for the entire year.

Some 87 U.S. troops have also died so far this year, also a record pace. About 90 U.S. servicemembers were killed in all of last year.

Wide areas of the south - in Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces - are controlled by the Taliban, and the fighting is migrating north, into Ghazni province - where 23 South Koreans were kidnapped in July - and Wardak, right next door to Kabul, the capital.

Osama bin Laden, whose presence here was a trigger for the U.S.-led attack, is still at large, possibly hiding in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

And Afghan farmers this year grew a record amount of opium poppy, prompting officials to draw up plans to use the military in drug interdiction missions against traffickers.

Rubin said Washington ignored how difficult the fight would be and wanted to prevent U.S. forces from being tied down in nation-building exercises as in the Balkans.

"Since 2005, U.S. generals have told me (former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) was drumming his fingers on the table trying to find out when he could take the troops out," Rubin said. "Now the administration has completely reversed itself, but of course without ever admitting it was wrong and still without a strategy that has a serious chance of success."

Still, U.S. commanders point out that military operations have killed more than 50 mid- and high-level Taliban commanders this year, causing at least a temporary disruption in the militants' abilities. The Afghan army participated in its first jointly planned and executed operation, in Ghazni province, earlier this summer.

Originally, Pentagon planners thought Bagram would be a "temporary" camp, Ives said, but an increased U.S. commitment to Afghanistan means Bagram needs to grow.

"Where we designed a base around 3,000 (troops), it quickly moved to 7,000 and now we're housing about 13,000, so just in a very short period of time you've grown not necessarily exponentially but you've definitely doubled just about every two years," Ives said.

A new runway accommodates heavier C-5 cargo planes and Boeing 747s. New soldiers' barracks - safer and more comfortable than the wooden structures that dot Bagram - are being built. And more workers are flowing in. Two years ago, some 1,500 Afghans worked in support roles at Bagram; today 5,000 walk through its front gates daily.

Six years after CIA agents and Special Forces soldiers helped the Northern Alliance swoop down from their northern stronghold toward Taliban-controlled Kabul, President Hamid Karzai is increasingly asking that Taliban militants join the government through peace talks. And the U.N. has said an increasing number of fighters want peace.

But the Taliban and factional warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the militant group Hezb-i-Islami, have rejected those offers, saying that international troops must first leave the country.

Although the Taliban seems to have an endless recruiting base in the ethnic Pashtun heartland in southern and eastern Afghanistan and the Pakistan border region, some fighters are laying down their arms and joining the government.

Officials in Ghazni province on Saturday said some 50 militants from Andar District - a Taliban stronghold where some of the Korean hostages were held - will join the government's reconciliation process.

But the U.S. will mentor Afghanistan's military for years to come, Ives said. He said America's military and aid commitments to Afghanistan are "speaking volumes."

"Our commitment to them is really saying we will be here until you have the security and stability that allows you to be a developing country on your own, and if that's 10 years then it's 10 years," he said. "But I think the thing is we're looking to help them as much as we can."

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