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Italy to decide on Afghan troop surge

Cabinet meets Thursday night to give US a number on Friday

03 December, 16:57
Italy to decide on Afghan troop surge (ANSA) - Rome, December 3 - The Italian government will decide Thursday evening how many additional troops it will send to Afghanistan in the framework of the surge announced this week by the United States, Premier Silvio Berlusconi said.

The general consensus is that Italy will send an additional 1,000 or at most 1,500 troops to join the contingent of some 2,800 men it already has in Afghanistan. "A decision on the number of troops is on the agenda of this evening's cabinet meeting and will be made public afterwards by the ministers involved," Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa, the premier added.

The forces are expected to be found by reducing Italy's presence in international missions in Bosnia and Lebanon.

Italy's contribution to the troop surge envisioned in US President Barack Omaba's new strategy for Afghanistan will be at the center of talks Frattini will have on Friday with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the special US representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.

The encounter will take place on the sidelines of a meeting in Brussels of NATO foreign ministers.

Speaking to the press on Thursday, Berlusconi reiterated Italy's support for the new US strategy which he said "foresees an exit strategy which, although it does not begin today, will leave that country in a different condition than it is in now".

"I have spoken to the (US) president about this and the need to revitalise the (Afghan) economy, which today is concentrated on drug production," the premier added. Afghanistan, Berlusconi observed, "is a difficult country, as demonstrated by the repeated failures to impose order there.

Not only is its society backwards but, as some have said, it is almost medieval".

"There have been long discussions among the countries involved in Afghanistan on the need to plant solid roots for democracy there. Some say, and not wrongly, that creating a democracy is a utopia in a country where so many people are illiterate," he added.

According to the premier, what is needed most, after ensuring security, "is building necessary infrastructures: roads, schools, hospitals and bridges, everything which that nation is lacking".

MEDVEDEV SAYS RUSSIA "WILL DO ITS PART".

Berlusconi made his remarks at a joint press conference with visiting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev who reiterated his country's readiness to help bring order to Afghanistan.

"We feel obliged to help in Afghanistan and are ready to support our partners' efforts to bring order there. We intend to make a contribution," Medvedev said, without going into details.

Some observers believe this may include allowing NATO greater transit space over Russian territory and possibly sending in police instructors.

Last June Medvedev took part in a regional summit with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran and expressed Russia's intention of playing a greater role in resolving the Afghan conflict.

At the time a spokesman for the president said Russia was ready to ''give Afghanistan practical assistance in restoring its economy".

Medevedev has also repeatedly offered to help Washington stabilize Afghanistan but nit by sending troops to a country where the former Soviet Union was bogged down in a bloody nine-year war during the 1980s. Obama on Tuesday illustrated his new policy for Afghanistan which included a surge of some 30,000 American troops and a "significant" contribution from NATO allies, including Italy.

NATO has already said it expects to raise 5,000 or more fresh troops for Afghanistan.

The additional forces will not only be combat troops but also instructors to train the Afghan army and police force.

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