- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2005

U.S. officials insisted yesterday they can still fight Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan despite a major deployment of assets to aid victims of the earthquake in neighboring Pakistan.

A day after suspected Taliban militants staged their deadliest attack ever on Afghanistan’s new national police force, the Pentagon announced that two military engineer battalions, a deployable hospital unit, and more cargo planes and heavy-lift helicopters had been dispatched to Pakistan. Thirty-six more helicopters are on call, officials said.

Pakistani officials yesterday were still struggling to coordinate international aid and reach victims of Saturday’s 7.6-magnitude quake, with officials saying the confirmed death toll now stood at 23,000 and could perhaps double.

The United Nations asked international donors for $272 million in donations and tents, food, blankets and medicine for quake victims in Kashmir and Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.

In Brussels, Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns prodded NATO countries deployed in Afghanistan to increase their contributions to the relief effort.

“We have a lot of allies next door,” Mr. Burns told reporters. “It is certainly our strong hope that those allies step up with the provision of equipment, especially.”

NATO ministers agreed to begin a humanitarian airlift mission to the region, with the first Boeing 707 leaving from Slovenia today.

The shift comes despite rising violence in Afghanistan’s southern and eastern regions in recent months by suspected Taliban and al Qaeda militants, including an ambush late Monday that killed 19 Afghan police officers in the southern province of Helmand.

More than 1,000 people, including more than 50 U.S. soldiers, have been killed in insurgent clashes this year, the bloodiest period since U.S.-led forces toppled the Islamist Taliban government in 2001.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli denied that the Taliban were “resurgent” in parts of Afghanistan, and said the United States and its allies could handle both the security needs there and the new aid mission in Pakistan.

“We’re well-equipped, well-positioned and well-coordinated in Afghanistan,” he said, adding that much of the U.S. military aid dispatched to Pakistan was from bases outside Afghanistan.

“I think the impact will be limited,” he said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters in Tampa, Fla., where he met with Pakistani Brig. Gen. Ikram ul-Haq, that “probably only a few” U.S. troops would be sent to Pakistan, and that the bigger need was for transport services and supplies.

Mr. Ereli said the Taliban and al Qaeda were still able to strike at U.S. and Afghan targets, but said they no longer constituted a mortal threat to the democratically elected government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“It’s a problem that obviously needs to be watched, that needs to be dealt with, but it is contained and does not affect the future of Afghanistan in any significant and material way,” he said.

The massive quake recovery and reconstruction effort has also raised questions about Pakistan’s ability to police its side of the Afghan border. Many think that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his top aides are hiding somewhere in the lawless region between the two countries.

With Pakistan unwilling to allow U.S. and allied troops onto its territory, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf dispatched some 58,000 Pakistani troops to the region. But some troops and equipment positioned there have been redeployed to the northeast frontier lands and to Pakistan’s half of the disputed Kashmir region to aid quake victims.

Complaints have been rising about the tardy and at times disorganized response by the Musharraf government in the first days after the massive quake hit.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, head of United Action Forum, the bloc of Islamic opposition parties in parliament, yesterday said it was time to withdraw more troops from the Afghan border patrols to help in the recovery, a suggestion quickly dismissed by the government.

“We have plenty of troops to do relief work,” said Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. “There is no need for it.”

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