NATO allies will bolster the American troop surge in Afghanistan by sending at least 7,000 soldiers of their own, officials said Friday in pledges that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described as crucial to turning the tide in the stalemated war.
The promised increase came as U.S. Marines and Afghan troops launched the first offensive since President Barack Obama announced a 30,000-troop American increase. The Marines and Afghan forces struck Taliban communications and supply lines Friday in an insurgent stronghold in southern Afghanistan.
In yet another war development, U.S. officials said the Obama administration may expand missile strikes on al-Qaida and the Taliban inside Pakistan and will focus on training Pakistan's forces in a border area where militants have been aiding the Afghan insurgency.
The Marine Corps offensive was part of preparations for the arrival of the 30,000 U.S. reinforcements, Gen. David Petraeus told The Associated Press. The top general in charge of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars said the military has been working for months to extend what he called "the envelope of security" around key towns in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Hundreds of Marines were dropped by helicopter and MV-22 Osprey aircraft behind Taliban lines in the northern end of the Now Zad Valley of Helmand province, scene of heavy fighting last summer, according to Marine spokesman Maj. William Pelletier.
In Brussels, Clinton told allied foreign ministers that it was essential that contributions to the war effort be provided as quickly as possible. She thanked Italy for its announcement that it will send an additional 1,000 troops and Britain for its pledge of another 500, but she said nonmilitary assistance is equally important.
"The need for additional forces is urgent, but their presence will not be indefinite," she told the North Atlantic Council, NATO's highest political group.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark told reporters at the organization's headquarters that still further NATO forces might be in the offing, suggesting there would be "more to come."
Also, Adm. James Stavridis, the top NATO and U.S. commander in Europe, said in an Associated Press interview that he expects several thousand more non-U.S. troops might be added to the 7,000.
"What we are all underlining to potential troop contributors is that we are truly asking for emphasis in the training area," Stavridis said.
The transformation of Afghanistan's army and police is critical to fulfill Obama's intention to begin pulling out American units 18 months from now.
According to a copy of Clinton's prepared remarks to the closed-door NATO meeting, she told the ministers that "the pace, size and scope of the drawdown will be predicated on the situation on the ground."
"If things are going well, a larger number of forces could be removed from more areas," she said. "If not, the size and speed of the drawdown will be adjusted accordingly."
No one was saying a quick pullout.
Said Fogh Rasmussen: "Transition (to Afghan control) does not mean exit."
Afghanistan's security forces have been hobbled by a lack of training and resources, but U.S. officials hope to bolster their ability by sending them out with American and allied troops into battle zones.
At least 150 Afghan troops joined about 1,000 Marines in Friday's offensive in Helmand province, said a spokesman for the Afghan governor there, Daood Ahmadi. He said the bodies of four slain Taliban had been recovered and more than 300 mines and roadside bombs turned up by Friday evening.
The new offensive aims to cut off the Taliban communication routes through Helmand and disrupt their supply lines, especially those providing explosives for the numerous lethal roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices, that litter the area, known by Marines as "IED Alley."
In Washington, there has been growing discussion of a need to expand the use of airborne missile-equipped drones in volatile regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan's neighbor.
The CIA has already accelerated the pace of its drone attacks in Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas this year.
Associated Press Writers Amir Shah in Kabul and Anne Flaherty, Pauline Jelinek, Anne Gearan and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.