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NATO Entering New Stage in Afghanistan

A NATO commander in southern Afghanistan says military operations there are entering a completely new stage, focused on bringing security and economic development to the local population.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon via satellite link from southern Afghanistan, Major General Mart de Kruif says the arrival of thousands of U.S. Marines in the region will significantly improve coalition efforts to bring security to the Afghan population.

"So we're entering a new stage in the operation, in which I would like to make the case that we took away the operational initiative from the insurgents and are now entering a new stage, in which we will have the operational initiative on our side and maintain it," said General de Kruif.

General de Kruif commands more than 30,000 international troops from 17 nations in southern Afghanistan, which has been a stronghold of the Taliban insurgency.

Attacks by the Taliban are currently at the highest level since the group was swept from power in 2001.

General de Kruif predicts the fighting will get more intense in the coming months.

"There will be an increase in incidents in the next couple of months, based on the fact that we are going to deploy these forces and secure areas where we've never been before until now," he said. "And we will also be able to put much more pressure on the insurgency than we did until now."

In addition to NATO forces, General de Kruif says there are about 30,000 members of the Afghan National Army and police forces in southern Afghanistan.

He estimates there are between 10,000 and 18,000 Taliban insurgents in the region. He says some are religiously motivated, others are involved in the narcotics trade and a third group is paid $10 per day to fight.

General de Kruif says in addition to the new military firepower being brought to southern Afghanistan, a large amount of economic and development funds are being poured into the region.

"It carries about $700 million U.S. of projects, from which more of 300 million are already funded," said de Kruif. "And it focuses on seven regional projects, especially focusing on power, water, water management and regional infrastructure. This is a significant step."

The Obama administration has made Afghanistan a major focus of its foreign policy and the U.S. is sending 21,000 additional troops in an attempt to tame a growing Taliban insurgency.

General de Kruif predicts it will take a couple of years to secure the population in southern Afghanistan.