Kabul, Afghanistan — NATO's top commander in Afghanistan warned Sunday that a majority of Afghans likely would switch their allegiance to resurgent Taliban militants if their lives show no visible improvements in the next six months.
Gen. David Richards, a British officer who commands NATO's 32,000 troops here, told The Associated Press that he would like to have about 2,500 additional troops to form a reserve battalion to help speed reconstruction and development efforts.
He said the southern part of the country, where NATO troops have fought their most intense battles this year, has been "broadly stabilized," which gives the alliance an opportunity to launch projects there. If it doesn't, he estimates about 70 percent of Afghans could switch their allegiance from NATO to the Taliban.
"They will say, 'We do not want the Taliban but then we would rather have that austere and unpleasant life that that might involve than another five years of fighting,"' Richards said in an interview.
"We have created an opportunity," following the intense fighting that left more than 500 militants dead in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, he said. "If we do not take advantage of this, then you can pour an additional 10,000 troops next year and we would not succeed because we would have lost by then the consent of the people."
NATO extended its security mission last week to all of Afghanistan, taking command of 12,000 U.S. troops in the war-battered country's east. The mission is the biggest ground combat operation in NATO history and gives Richards command of the largest number of U.S. troops under a foreign leader since World War II.
Some 8,000 U.S. troops will continue to function outside NATO, tracking al-Qaida terrorists, helping train Afghan security forces and doing reconstruction work.
Afghanistan is going through its worst bout of violence since the U.S.-led invasion removed the former Taliban regime from power five years ago. The Taliban has made a comeback in the southern and eastern parts of the country and is threatening Western attempts to stabilize the country after almost three decades of war.
Taliban militants have acknowledged adopting the suicide attacks commonly used by insurgents in Iraq, launching 78 suicide bombings across Afghanistan this year that have killed close to 200 people, NATO said Sunday.
There were only two suicide attacks in 2003 and six in 2004, according to Seth Jones, an analyst for the U.S.-based RAND Corp. There were 21 in 2005.
Richards said NATO troops also have seen an upsurge in violence along the eastern border with Pakistan since that country's government signed a deal with pro-Taliban militants last month to end fighting that broke out after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.
U.S. military officials have said the number of attacks on coalition and Afghan troops has tripled in the tribal border region. Afghan and Western officials have repeatedly accused Pakistan of not doing all it can to block the flow of insurgents over the border, but Pakistan has rejected the charge.
As of Sunday, at least 279 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, according to the Defense Department.