- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Bush administration’s senior official for South Asia said Tuesday that a reported buildup of the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance’s forces in Afghanistan to counter the Taliban’s expanding influence is “not welcome” and that “ethnic politics” should not impede the central government’s efforts to unite the country.

Although Richard A. Boucher described the reports as “chatter” by South Asian media and Afghan politicians, he said the buildup of any ethnic group at the expense of the Kabul government is worrisome.

“It’s not welcome. I don’t have a feel of how extensive it is … and some of those guys may have never really disarmed,” Mr. Boucher told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

Click here to watch Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher discuss unity in Afghanistan

Click here to watch Mr. Boucher discuss Afghanistan’s corruption

“The point is that Afghanistan has got to figure out how to get along as a nation, and there have been a lot of steps toward nation building,” he said. “A lot of local warlord-type leaders have been marginalized - not all of them completely.”

Mr. Boucher, who is assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, also attributed some of the chatter to political jockeying ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in Afghanistan late next year.

“That’s bringing out a little more these days - resentments and alliances between groups and talk about ethnic politics, but I think there is a stronger movement toward creating a sense of nation.”

The Northern Alliance was founded by mostly Uzbek and Tajik warlords and took power after the Soviet pullout in 1989. The Taliban was formed later as a Pashtun resistance to the alliance and seized control of most of Afghanistan in 1996. The Bush administration relied on the alliance to win back the capital, Kabul, in November 2001.

In recent weeks, the Taliban has mounted a series of bold attacks on U.S. forces, killing 13 Americans in northeastern Afghanistan and freeing hundreds of Taliban prisoners from a jail in Kandahar.

Mr. Boucher said that a “stronger Taliban is a misconception,” because its widely expected resurgence in the spring of 2007 did not materialize. It couldn’t amass forces to take towns, so it adopted terrorist tactics, such as kidnappings and suicide bombings, he said.

However, Peter Tomsen, U.S. special envoy to Afghan guerrillas during the 1980s, said the Taliban was expanding its presence in rural areas in the south, in the east, around Kabul and even in the north because the United States and the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai have made too many mistakes and failed to reconstruct the country. Mr. Tomsen said the Northern Alliance “sees the Taliban coming” and is responding.

Karl F. Inderfurth, who held Mr. Boucher’s position in the Clinton administration, agreed with Mr. Boucher that the Taliban had failed to seize and hold territory in last year’s offensive.

At the same time, he said, “we’re not losing and we’re not winning. There are a lot of things that can be done that can keep Afghanistan in a position where some development can go forward. The key is in the tribal areas of Pakistan.”

Mr. Inderfurth praised legislation sponsored by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, and Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, that promises long-term assistance to Pakistan of up to $1.5 billion a year and shifts the focus from military to civilian help. The bill “sends a powerful signal that this time, we will not tire and walk away,” he said.

Mr. Boucher said the Taliban and al Qaeda were using Pakistan’s remote tribal areas as a base to plan attacks on both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Increasing numbers of foreign fighters, including Arabs, Uzbeks and Chechens, are showing up in Afghanistan this year, he said.

However, “endemic corruption” remains Afghanistan’s biggest problem, Mr. Boucher said, and everyone against whom there is evidence of wrongdoing - including perhaps Mr. Karzai’s brother - must be prosecuted.

Mr. Boucher said he has not seen specific evidence implicating Wali Karzai in drug trafficking but urged the Afghan authorities to treat all suspects equally.

“If he is [implicated], then he needs to be prosecuted,” Mr. Boucher said.

According to secret U.S. military documents dating as far back as 2005 that were widely publicized in 2006, Mr. Karzai “receives money from drug lords as bribes to facilitate their work and movement.”

At the time, he denied the accusations.

“I was never in the drug business, I never benefited, I never facilitated, I never helped anyone with the transportation of any kind,” he told ABC News.

Mr. Boucher said some ministries are capable now, but others are still problematic.

“Corruption is probably the biggest problem,” he said. “Everywhere it not only undercuts economic efficiency but the opinion people have of government.”

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