By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 7, 2006
The commander of NATO forces said yesterday that rising attacks in Afghanistan will test NATO troops as the alliance expands into volatile southern regions of the country this summer, but he stressed that al-Qaeda and Taliban rebels lack the ability to reignite a major insurgency.
Marine Gen. James L. Jones, NATO's supreme allied commander, played down an increase in violence more than four years after the U.S.-led military campaign ousted the Taliban from power in 2001. He said remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in pockets of the country cannot "restart an insurgency of any size and major scope."
Instead, Jones cited the growing cultivation and trade of opium poppies as the "most serious problem" facing the central Asian nation today. A field survey released yesterday by the Afghan government and the United Nations predicted an increase in poppy cultivation in 2006 in 13 provinces and a decrease in three, with 16 others remaining unchanged.
"Afghanistan is on the way to recovery but is also fighting some internal demons. And one is certainly the narcotics culture and the dependence of the economy on narcotics," Jones said at a Pentagon news briefing. He said the military will play a supporting role in counternarcotics efforts, supplying intelligence and security while the Afghan government takes the lead in destroying crops.
Jones's assessment of the Afghan insurgency differed slightly in tone from that given last week by a senior military intelligence official. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified before the Senate that "the Taliban-dominated insurgency remains capable and resilient." Attacks by the Taliban and other "anti-coalition" groups had increased by 20 percent in 2005, he said, including more suicide bombings and a doubling of strikes by improvised explosive devices.
"We judge that the insurgency appears emboldened by perceived tactical successes and will be active this spring," Maples said.
Jones also said violence is likely to grow this spring -- often a time of insurgent offensives in Afghanistan. "I think you're going to see more testing, more attacks," he said. "NATO, when it comes into the southern part, will be tested."
NATO plans by July to expand its military presence from the north and west and send several thousand more troops into the former Taliban stronghold of southern Afghanistan. That will leave the main mission of U.S. military forces as the eastern region along the Pakistan border, where much of the fighting takes place. Ultimately, Jones said, a 21,000-strong force from the 26 NATO member states and 10 other countries will assume the overall security mission in Afghanistan, although the U.S. military will continue to lead counter-terrorist operations under a distinct chain of command.