Taliban called growing threat in Afghanistan

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- New U.S. intelligence assessments cast doubt on President Bush's recent contention that Taliban and al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan are "on the run."

In fact, American and NATO troops have been unable to contain an expansion of Taliban insurgents in southern and western Afghanistan, two top U.S. intelligence officers said yesterday. They said the insurgents increasingly are funded, armed, trained and directed by al-Qaida from its sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan.

The director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, described the situation in Afghanistan as "deteriorating," even though U.S. and allied forces have been roughly doubled since 2004, from about 26,000 to nearly 50,000 today.

These troops will be reinforced with about 2,200 Marines, who will arrive soon on an urgent combat deployment into southern Afghanistan to check the Taliban advance and liberate areas under Taliban control.

Diverted from their normal assignments, the Marines were tapped for a seven-month stint of what is expected to be hard fighting, according to the Marine commandant, Gen. James T. Conway.

McConnell told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that the "security situation has deteriorated in some areas in the south, and Taliban forces have expanded their operations into previously peaceful areas of the west and around Kabul."

McConnell said the Taliban is in control of about 10 percent of Afghanistan, with the central government able to control about 30 percent.

The death or capture of three top Taliban leaders last year "does not yet appear to have significantly disrupted insurgent operations," McConnell said.

Despite U.S. efforts to train and equip the Afghan army and national police, McConnell said, the Afghan forces are hampered by insufficient training and equipment, and by corruption and absenteeism. The intelligence chief said the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai has a "chronic shortage of resources and qualified and motivated government officials," and has difficulty delivering services outside the capital.

Army Lt. Gen Michael D. Maples, head of military intelligence, told the committee that al-Qaida, based in its sanctuary in Pakistan, "has expanded its support to the Afghan insurgency."

Also, Army Maj. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, who commands American forces in Afghanistan, said he is seeing "an increase in cooperation between the insurgents as well as the terrorists led by al-Qaida" in Afghanistan. He said insurgent groups are starting to coordinate their operations rather than acting separately, suggesting a more difficult tactical problem for U.S. forces.

These new intelligence assessments echo a series of more damning nongovernmental analyses, including one by former NATO commander and Marine commandant, retired Gen. James Jones. That report, released last month by the Atlantic Council, concluded that "urgent changes are required now to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failing or failed state."

Jones reported that the military conflict was at best a stalemate, that the Karzai government is ineffective, and that U.S. and NATO efforts to help strengthen Karzai's ability to extend government services were an uncoordinated mess.

Since the United States claimed victory in late 2001 in chasing the Taliban and al-Qaida from Afghanistan, the Islamic extremists have regrouped in Pakistan's frontier regions as the United States shifted its attention to Iraq.

The Pentagon has characterized Afghanistan as an "economy of force" operation, meaning that it gets troops, equipment and strategic attention that are not needed in Iraq, which has been viewed as the more important conflict.

But that view is increasingly in question, by outside critics as well as by Pentagon officials who see the growing and increasingly violent Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan as potentially more damaging to U.S. interests and regional stability than continued unrest in Iraq.

Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has called for a new approach in Afghanistan.

"We need a strategy in Afghanistan that addresses both the security situation and governance and development," he said at a Pentagon news conference last month.

In an interview yesterday, a senior White House official said that no major new strategy is imminent, but that Afghanistan operations are constantly being reviewed.

"We are trying to make this work within the context of NATO and the international community," the official said, describing that as "a unique set of challenges" that do not constrain U.S. policy in Iraq, for example.

The official said he hopes NATO can move forward in the next two months on two critical issues: devising an effective counter-narcotics strategy and naming a special U.N. envoy to help coordinate the work of governmental and private relief and reconstruction efforts.

The United Nations reported this month that the south and southwest regions of Afghanistan "continue to grow opium at an alarming rate," with a second record crop expected this year. The U.N. report noted that insurgents typically take 10 percent of the crop under their control, their major source of funding.

The Marines being sent to southern Afghanistan are the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, an air-ground task force with a reinforced infantry battalion and an air squadron with Harrier strike fighters and attack and transport helicopters.

"In Afghanistan, from what I understand, they will come out to fight and try to keep us engaged, try to kill us," said Capt. David Lee, who commands a reconnaissance and surveillance platoon in the 24th MEU.

He said that was in sharp contrast with the fighting in Iraq, where his experience was that insurgents would not attack Marines directly.

As for Afghanistan, "We're ready," he said.

david.wood@baltsun.com

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