Commander: Mistakes Made in Afghanistan

The Associated Press
Tuesday, October 17, 2006; 11:16 PM

WASHINGTON -- The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan failed to follow through as it should have after ousting the Taliban government in 2001, setting the stage for this year's deadly resurgence, the NATO commander in the country said Tuesday.

The mistake consisted of adopting "a peacetime approach" too early, British Gen. David Richards told Pentagon reporters. He said the international community has six months to correct the problem before losing Afghan support, reiterating a warning he issued last week.

"The Taliban were defeated. ... And it looked all pretty hunky-dory," Richard said of the environment at the end of 2001. "We thought it was all done ... and didn't treat it as aggressively as ... with the benefit of hindsight, we should have done."

Progress on security, rebuilding and good government didn't meet Afghan expectations, and this year the "Taliban exploited ... this sense of frustration amongst the people," Richards said in a televised conference from Afghanistan.

While it is unusual for a commander to criticize an ongoing military operation, Richards' comments came days after another British officer offered a much harsher assessment of the other U.S.-led war, in Iraq.

Asked for comment on Richards' remarks, Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Vician said Afghanistan was and is one of the world's poorest nations.

"It will take years of hard work by the Afghan people and the international community to reverse the effects of decades of occupation and civil war," he said. "Nonetheless, there has been significant economic growth and donor efforts to improve living conditions across the country," including improved health care, school enrollment, roads and other projects.

Vician said U.S. resources put into Afghanistan have increased _ 21,000 American troops are there now compared with 9,500 in March 2003. He said 81 percent of Afghans have access to health care compared with 8 percent in 2001; 2.5 million have benefited from irrigation and road projects linking farms to market; and 5 million students are in schools, 34 percent of them girls.

Insurgent bombings, ambushes and rocket attacks have surged this year. Since the Taliban was overthrown, many of Afghanistan's former rulers are thought to have found sanctuary across the border in Pakistan.

Five years later, NATO forces, along with Afghan army and police forces, plan a series of operations throughout the country this winter to do road building and other reconstruction projects in more secure areas and bolster security to prepare for reconstruction in less secure regions, Richards said.

Richards said that if there is not measurable improvement in six months, Afghans may choose "the rotten future offered by the Taliban" rather than the hopeful future that the coalition offered but didn't deliver.

"This is not just my view but that of many others," he said.

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