NATO General Tells of Taliban Setbacks

By Jason Ukman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A top NATO alliance general said yesterday that Afghanistan's Taliban militia has lost its ability to control large swaths of territory, even if the hard-line Islamic movement remains strong in "small pockets" of the country.

Dutch Maj. Gen. Ton van Loon, who this month ended his tour as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan's volatile south, said Taliban fighters had been driven out of the regions where they had sought to gain a foothold, including Kandahar city and parts of Helmand province.

"They will still be a force but they don't have the initiative we have," van Loon said in an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors.

Last year, the Taliban used suicide bombings, kidnappings and coordinated attacks to destabilize large parts of the country, including much of the south, leading many Afghans to fear that the country was slipping back under Taliban control.

After a lull in the fighting over the winter, Afghan and NATO officials had been preparing for a major Taliban offensive this spring. So far, the onslaught has failed to materialize, though the country has experienced daily clashes that have taken a heavy toll on civilians.

The U.N. human rights chief reported Monday that as many as 380 civilians had died in Afghanistan in the first four months of the year. While the Taliban has been blamed in many of those cases, U.S. and NATO firepower has also caused civilian deaths, provoking public anger and embarrassing the government of President Hamid Karzai.

In the interview, van Loon said NATO is making a concerted effort to avoid civilian casualties, in some cases changing operational plans.

Van Loon said defeat of the Taliban was only one component of the mission. Government institutions must be strengthened and farmers need to have alternatives to producing opium poppies, he said. The poppy crop is expected to be robust this year, despite eradication efforts.

"If you don't have a comprehensive approach in Afghanistan, you will not make progress," van Loon said.

Correspondent Griff Witte in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company