Afghanistan's army cannot secure the country without at least 150,000 troops, more than five times what it has today, the country's defence minister said Wednesday.

A plan to increase the army from 27,000 troops to 70,000 is inadequate and the U.S.-led coalition should divert funds from its own operations to make it more ambitious, Abdul Rahim Wardak said.

Wardak said he believed a 70,000-strong Afghan army could not put down a recent surge of Taliban-led violence and protect the country from outside threats.

"The minimum number we can survive on within this complex, strategic environment ... [is] 150,000 to 200,000, which should also be well-trained and equipped, with mobility and firepower and logistical and training institutions," Wardak told the Associated Press during an interview in his Kabul office.

"We want to survive and be able to defend ourselves against external and internal threats," said Wardak, a U.S.-educated former mujahedeen commander who fought Soviet forces during their 1979-89 occupation.

Wardak's comments came as a suicide attack and market bombing killed at least three Afghan civilians. He nonetheless predicted anti-insurgent efforts will slash raging violence here within three months.

Besides its army, which is smaller than the New York Police Department, Afghanistan has 60,000 lesser-equipped police officers. The Afghan forces complement more than 20,000 U.S.-led coalition troops and about 10,000 NATO forces. The NATO force is expected to increase to 16,000 by late July.

Cheaper to fund Afghan troops

Wardak said the amount of money some coalition nations spend on one of their own soldiers in the field could fund 50 to 100 new Afghan troops.

"We think if we stand on our own feet [then] the coalition and the international community saves a lot of money in the long run, will not be compelled to deploy large formations of their forces," he said.

U.S. military officials were not immediately available for comment.

More than 20 coalition soldiers have died since mid-May in the bloodiest spate of post-Taliban violence since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the hard-line government in late 2001. Eighteen U.S. troops died in June, the second deadliest month for American forces here. More than 700 people, mainly militants, have been killed during the past two months, according to an AP tally of coalition and Afghan figures.

In a bid to curb the violence, more than 10,000 U.S.-led coalition and Afghan soldiers are taking part in a massive anti-Taliban sweep across southern Afghanistan dubbed Operation Mountain Thrust.

Wardak blamed the increased bloodshed on several factors, including the weakness of the Afghan defence forces, increased terrorist infiltration, insurgent financing from outside the country and widespread poverty that has pushed some men to join militant groups to earn money.

He said the ongoing Operation Mountain Thrust, along with replacing ineffective regional police and army commanders and increasing NATO troops, would crush the insurgent threat.

"I think within two to three months there should be a considerable improvement in the region," Wardak said.

More violence on Wednesday

But violence continued across Afghanistan on Wednesday. A bomb hidden in a fruit cart exploded in a southern market near the Pakistani border, killing two men and wounding eight others.

A suicide attack on a U.S. military convoy in the east killed one child and wounded three others. Two American soldiers also were wounded, officials said.

Insurgents attacked coalition and Afghan forces with rockets and machine-guns in southern Helmand province, U.S. military spokesman Sgt. Chris Miller said. No coalition forces were wounded and there was no information on insurgent casualties.