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US commander welcomes attention on Afghan mission

David Mercer

The man who heads U.S. efforts to train and equip security forces in Afghanistan says he welcomes the attention President-elect Barack Obama says he will give on the war in that country.

Maj. Gen. Robert Cone told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Obama's plans add to the significance of that teaching mission, one which will include 2,700 Illinois National Guard troops by the end of the year.

"If anything, I would say that we're looking for an increase in the importance of this mission and in resources," Cone said in a Veterans Day phone interview from Afghanistan.

Obama will add thousands of troops to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and renew American efforts to find Osama bin Laden, The Washington Post reported Tuesday. He talked often during the campaign about the need for the United States to focus more heavily on Afghanistan while looking for a way out of war in Iraq.

Cone, who has been in charge of U.S. troops training Afghanistan's army and national police force since July 2007, says more troops and other resources are needed as American and NATO forces deal with increasing violence.

Through Nov. 1, 143 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan this year, more than any year since the 2001 invasion.

But it isn't enough to just add American troops, Cone said.

"The answer here in Afghanistan is to take advantage of the fact that the Afghans want to defend this country," he said. "This is a warrior culture."

The Department of Defense says Afghan soldiers take the lead in joint operations a little more than 60 percent of the time.

The Illinois Guard troops — all part of the Urbana-based 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team — will be expected to train large numbers of Afghans to use equipment common to American soldiers — M-16 rifles and Humvees.

The most important part of the Illinois troops' job will be to quickly develop relationships, win trust and, in the process, train Afghan soldiers, Cone said.

"A lot of it has to do with, as we say, drinking from the same canteen," he said. "Literally showing that you as a soldier are willing to put your shoulder next to an Afghan ... That you're willing to share danger."

The Illinois Guard troops make up the largest Guard deployment since World War II and are scheduled to be in Afghanistan by the end of the year, National Guard Maj. Brad Leighton said.

The Illinois troops are expected to be in Afghanistan up to about 10 months.

The Associated Press