General Warns of Perils in Afghanistan

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A senior U.S. military commander urged Pakistan yesterday to crack down on an entrenched network of senior Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, training camps and recruiting grounds -- a sanctuary from which fighters have tripled cross-border attacks since September and are preparing an anticipated major spring offensive in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Army Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the outgoing top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, also warned that an even greater threat than the resurgent Taliban is the possibility that the government of President Hamid Karzai will suffer an irreversible loss of legitimacy among the Afghan population.

In response to the rising security threats, the Pentagon is expected to announce soon that it will keep U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan at a minimum of 27,000 into 2008, extending a temporary increase of 3,200 combat troops ordered last month.

"Al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership presence inside of Pakistan remains a very significant problem," Eikenberry testified before the House Armed Services Committee, warning of the "growing threat of Talibanization" inside Pakistan.

"A steady, direct attack against the command and control in Pakistan in sanctuary areas is essential for us to achieve success," Eikenberry said, joining other U.S. officials in publicly pressuring the Islamabad government to crack down on the safe havens in its frontier regions.

Taliban forces in Pakistan's North Waziristan have staged mass attacks on U.S. border camps, including a strike in recent days that saw the U.S. military respond with artillery fire into Pakistan.

Eikenberry, who has spent two of the past four years in Afghanistan, offered a forthright assessment not only of the progress in the Central Asian nation but also of the stark challenges ahead.

"The long-term threat to campaign success . . . is the potential irretrievable loss of legitimacy of the government of Afghanistan," he said.

"The accumulated effects of violent terrorist insurgent attacks, corruption, insufficient social resources and growing income disparities, all overlaid by a major international presence, are taking their toll on Afghan government legitimacy," he said. "A point could be reached at which the government of Afghanistan becomes irrelevant to its people, and the goal of establishing a democratic, moderate, self-sustaining state could be lost forever."

A critical question, Eikenberry said, is whether the Afghan government is "winning." "In several critical areas -- corruption, justice, law enforcement and counter-narcotics -- it is not," he said. He called Afghan government institutions "extraordinarily weak."

Greater U.S. and international efforts are urgently needed to build a court and corrections system in Afghanistan, and to strengthen efforts to train an Afghanistan police force, which he said is "several years behind" compared with the development of the Afghan army. The Pentagon is seeking $5.9 billion this year and $2.7 billion in 2008 to build up Afghan security forces, including the police.

Eikenberry stressed that Taliban forces -- though making gains in relatively lawless regions of southern Afghanistan, which had few coalition troops until last summer -- have not been able to retake areas where the Afghan government and security forces have established a presence.

The decision to dispatch more U.S. forces is intended to bolster NATO's total contingent of 36,000 troops and to allow NATO to go on the offensive against a resurgent Taliban, Eikenberry said. NATO, which now has military oversight over all of Afghanistan, has provided only about 85 to 90 percent of the promised troops and other resources, and it faces shortages of infantry, military intelligence, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, Eikenberry said. "NATO must do more," Mary Beth Long, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security, testified in the same House hearing.

The Taliban resurgence has been supported by a strengthened command-and-control structure that moved across the border into Pakistan after U.S. forces toppled the Taliban government in 2001. Today, Eikenberry said, senior Taliban leaders from the ousted regime are collaborating with al-Qaeda leaders, as well as with other groups led by the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani clan of an ethnically Pashtun tribe.

The United States is "terribly concerned" about the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership in Quetta, Pakistan, and other regions that direct attacks, conduct training in camps with the help of foreign fighters, and recruit from Islamic schools known as madrassas. "Action against those will be needed," Long said.

Pakistan's government in September struck a peace agreement that halted military raids in North Waziristan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but since then the number of cross-border attacks has as much as tripled, Eikenberry said. "There've been problems with" the agreement, he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company