By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 10, 2006
KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov. 9 -- A senior State Department official said Thursday that the Bush administration has been "surprised by the intensity of the violence" in Afghanistan over the past year, but he reiterated its "firm commitment" to support the embattled Kabul government.
Richard Boucher, the top State Department official on South and Central Asia, said this week's U.S. elections and the abrupt resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would have "no impact" on U.S. military policy here.
His comments came as he was finishing a three-day visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The governments of both countries have recently faced rising violence from Islamic insurgents and a drop in domestic popularity.
Boucher described Afghan President Hamid Karzai as an "excellent partner" who faces "very difficult tasks," and he said Washington was "firmly with the government and the people of Pakistan" in their fight against Islamic extremists. He also noted the "very strong support among Republicans and Democrats for the mission" in Afghanistan.
U.S. military officials here echoed those comments, saying troop levels would remain at roughly 20,000 for the foreseeable future; currently, more than 10,000 of them operate under the NATO flag.
Boucher said the key to combating a revived Taliban insurgency on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border was to "extend the benefits of government" to areas of conflict.
Many Afghans have expressed anger over the lack of government protection and services in rural provinces, a void that has helped fortify the Taliban and allowed for an upsurge in opium cultivation. There is also growing resentment against the presence of foreign military forces, and Taliban leaders have attracted support by calling for resistance.
Boucher acknowledged that U.S. officials had all been surprised by the level of violence in Afghanistan over the past year, during which more than 1,500 people have been killed and 70 suicide bombs have exploded. But he said two recent peace accords signed between Pakistan's government and tribal leaders in the country's violent border regions were "hopeful signs."
In separate meetings with journalists this week in Kabul and Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, Boucher deflected questions about rising anti-American and anti-government sentiment in the tribal regions. He declined to directly address the widespread public belief that the United States was behind an Oct. 30 missile attack on a religious school in the Bajaur tribal region of Pakistan. That attack killed 82 people.
"The Pakistani government said it carried out this action, initiated this action, and that it was necessary because militants, terrorists, were at a training center," Boucher said Tuesday. "I have no reason to doubt that, and frankly from what I have seen, I have every reason to believe it."
Pakistani officials have said they attacked the site, but many Pakistanis are convinced that the missiles were dropped by a U.S. drone plane and that the school contained only young religious students.
Boucher declined to say whether the airstrike was based on U.S. intelligence or whether Pakistan had acted because of U.S. concerns that it was not doing enough to fight terrorism.
The missile attack has convulsed the tribal region. After a suicide bombing at a military training camp Wednesday killed 42 recruits, Islamic extremists said it was a reprisal for the Bajaur attack.