KABUL (Reuters) - With the reduction of violence in Iraq, foreign militants were now flooding into Afghanistan to join Taliban insurgents battling Afghan and international troops, the Afghan defence minister said on Wednesday.
There was a 33 percent rise in insurgent attacks in Afghanistan in 2008, according to NATO-led forces.
Violence is expected to rise further in 2009 as Washington prepares to send up to 25,000 more troops into new areas of the southern Pashtun heartlands.
Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said there were about 15,000 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan but their numbers were being swelled by foreign insurgents moving in from Iraq, where violence has fallen after a U.S. troop “surge” and other measures.
“Since last year, as the result of the success of the surge in Iraq, there has been a flow of foreign terrorists into Afghanistan,” Wardak told a news conference.
“There have been engagements ... in 2008, and in some of these engagements, actually 60 percent of the total force which we have encountered were foreign fighters,” he said. Wardak was speaking after he and Afghan President Hamid Karzai held talks with NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, U.S. General John Craddock.
The talks focussed on training and equipping the Afghan army, which the U.S. military aims to increase from some 80,000 troops now to 134,000 in 2012, the planned deployment of the extra U.S. soldiers and ways to reduce civilians casualties, Wardak said.
U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to approve as early as this week plans to send up to 17,000 more combat troops to Afghanistan to add to the 36,000 American soldiers already battling Taliban insurgents in the country.
The additional U.S. forces will focus on hitting militant communication lines and their cross-border infiltration into Afghanistan from Pakistan. The extra troops will reduce reliance on air strikes, cutting civilian deaths, Wardak said.
Civilian casualties caused by international forces have eroded support for Karzai and the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan more than seven years since the Taliban’s removal.
More than 2,100 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in 2008, the United Nations said on Tuesday, more than a third of them by Afghan and international troops.
Wardak said the issue had been a source of tension with the foreign troops.
Editing by Paul Tait