U.S. Boosts Commitment To Afghanistan

CBS News reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News who now covers the State Department.

The Bush administration is redoubling its commitment to move Afghanistan from a failed state controlled by the Taliban to one that is democratically governed and run in as modern a way as is possible. To achieve that goal and show support for President Hamid Karzai, the administration want to put more soldiers and a lot more money into the country.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called a meeting of her NATO colleagues in Brussels to encourage the Europeans and other non-member partners like Australia and Japan to do more, and she put Washington's increased contributions front and center. Rice said President Bush will ask Congress for an additional $10.6 billion in aid over the next two years. Most of that, $8.6 billion, would be spent to increase the size of the Afghan Army from 30,000 to 70,000. The size of the police force would also be greatly expanded. The other $2 billion would be spent on reconstruction projects such as roads, electricity capacity and agriculture — and, perhaps most critical of all, counter-narcotics efforts. All of these funds are on top of the total of $14 billion already spent since 2001.

The big push is on because the past year saw a resurgent Taliban and a bumper opium poppy crop, which authorities say is responsible for 90% of the world's heroin. After a policy review that lasted several months, the Bush administration settled on a strategy that requires more troops on the ground and more aid money from Washington and almost every other capital in the West.

Why the big effort now? South Asian analyst Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute says "we're very concerned about a surge in the insurgency this spring. What we are fearful of is that they may show the same kind of momentum they showed last fighting season."

During a briefing for reporters at the State Department, Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said "the '06 numbers were a wake-up call" — though when asked if the Taliban's success during the past year occurred because the United States, perhaps preoccupied in Iraq and elsewhere, "took its eye off the ball," Burns was quick to say: "Not at all. Not at all." Noting America's continued troop presence in Afghanistan since 2001, Burns added that, "when you're in a fight like this and when the conditions of the fight change and when the numbers of the opponents grow, you adjust, and that's what we're doing…..we're going to step up and meet this threat." For his part, Burns made it clear "we intend to win in Afghanistan."

Weinbaum puts it another way. "What we are really after here is regaining the confidence of the Afghan people, confidence that we squandered during these past five years," he said. "We had opportunities to secure them, to rebuild the country; we just did not take advantage when that window was open."

Coming at the same time that Mr. Bush is putting more troops into Iraq to quell the insurgency there, the new push in Afghanistan means staying more focused on two critical fronts at the same time where American lives are on the line every day. In addition to juggling these two "hot" wars, add the almost-as-important problems of Iran's and North Korea's nuclear efforts plus Rice's publicly stated desire to see significant progress between Israelis and Palestinians and, presto, you've got some seriously important crockery all spinning at the same time.

By Charles M. Wolfson