President Bush warned on Thursday that he expected "fierce fighting" to flare in Afghanistan this spring, and he pressed NATO allies to provide a bigger and more aggressive force to guard against a resurgence by the Taliban and al-Qaida that could threaten the fragile Afghan nation.
With U.S. and NATO commanders pressing for more troops and experts predicting that further gains by the Taliban could put the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai in danger, Bush used his presidential platform to lay out what he said was substantial progress in Afghanistan since 2001, but also a continuing threat.
The remarks, to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization here, amounted to an unusually high-profile acknowledgment from Bush of the precarious state of the effort to stabilize Afghanistan, a country the administration long held up as a foreign policy success story.
The speech renewed criticism from Democrats that had the United States not been tied down in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan would not have turned dire. At the same time, some Republican lawmakers said Bush's new strategy would not do enough to tamp down the Afghan drug trade. Outside experts criticized the president for painting too rosy a picture.
The speech was also a striking effort by the White House to focus attention back on Afghanistan at a time when Congress is debating resolutions criticizing Bush's strategy in Iraq and the administration is making a case that Iranian forces are supplying Shiite militants in Iraq with roadside bombs.
"Across Afghanistan last year, the number of roadside bomb attacks almost doubled, direct fire attacks on international forces almost tripled, and suicide bombings grew nearly fivefold," Bush said. "These escalating attacks were part of a Taliban offensive that made 2006 the most violent year in Afghanistan since the liberation of the country."
Bush said the question now was whether to "just kind of let this young democracy wither and fade away" or to step up the fight.
"The snow is going to melt in the Hindu Kush mountains, and when it does we can expect fierce fighting to continue," Bush said. "The Taliban and al-Qaida are preparing to launch new attacks. Our strategy is not to be on the defense, but to go on the offense."
Bush noted that he has already extended the tour of a 3,200-soldier U.S. brigade and called on Congress to provide $11.8 billion more to pay for operations in Afghanistan over the next two years.
The president said his administration had completed a review of its Afghan strategy, and would work to increase the size of the Afghan army from 32,000 troops to 70,000 by the end of next year, and to bring in additional allied troops to support the fledgling army.
"When there is a need, when the commanders on the ground say to our respective countries, 'We need additional help,' our NATO countries must provide it in order to be successful in the mission," Bush said.
He promised to build new roads that would help spur economic development, to battle an increase in the opium trade and to try to forge better ties between Afghanistan and its neighbor, Pakistan.