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NATO to Boost Troop Numbers in Afghanistan

NATO says it will double its troop strength in southern Afghanistan as it takes over security operations there from the United States next month. The planned handover comes amid a spike in violence across the region and growing concern about NATO's ability to beat back the insurgents.

The NATO commander in Afghanistan says the number of troops in the south should rise from 3,000 to 6,000 by the end of July.

Speaking to reporters in Kabul Sunday, Lieutenant General David Richards said his troops will take a more development-oriented approach than the U.S.-led coalition.

"We will take an approach that is more people-focused, try and establish what they most wish and gear our security operations around facilitating for example, more roads, irrigation, etcetera," said Richards.

The handover comes as Taleban insurgents intensify their attacks across southern Afghanistan.

More than 400 people have been killed since mid-May and the Taleban has reportedly seized control of several remote locations in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

Local officials say support for coalition forces has declined throughout the region, especially as coalition troops mistakenly killed a number of civilians during recent combat operations.

General Richards acknowledged that progress in the south could take time but promised NATO troops would stay the course. He said NATO's new approach is, in part, meant to regain popular support.

"We are determined to demonstrate to all Afghans that there is a viable alternative," he said. "There is a choice and a brighter future available to them and their children. "

By the end of July NATO's countrywide troop strength is expected to rise from around 9,000 to more than 17,000. But unlike coalition forces, the NATO peacekeepers have not yet been involved in major counter-insurgency operations. They have focused primarily on maintaining security, not pursuing terrorists.

As a result, many local officials in restive areas like Kandahar are questioning NATO's ability to effectively replace the more battle-tested coalition troops. But security analysts say the peacekeepers have the advantage of being unencumbered by the coalition forces' local reputation for heavy-handed tactics.

Professor William Maley is the Director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University in Canberra and the author of several books about Afghanistan. He says NATO's new approach could help reverse the recent slide in security in the southern provinces.

"As long as the deployment of NATO does not create the impression within Afghanistan that what one is witnessing is a kind of loss of momentum of international commitment," he said.

The United States is scheduled to withdraw some of its 23,000 soldiers serving in Afghanistan later this year. But the U.S. military says a reduction in troop numbers will not weaken its counter-insurgency operations.