- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2006

NATO’s supreme allied commander downplayed yesterday press reports of a rejuvenated insurgency in Afghanistan, saying some of the violence stems from the drug trade and simple criminality, and not attacks by the ousted Taliban or al Qaeda.

“My take on the situation in Afghanistan is that the Taliban and al Qaeda are not in a position to where they can restart an insurgency of any size and major scope,” said Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, whose NATO command is scheduled to take over the Afghanistan military and reconstruction mission later this year.

“Afghanistan is on the way to recovery, but is also fighting some internal demons,” he said.

Since U.S.-led forces routed the harsh Taliban regime in December 2001, Afghanistan has held two nearly violence-free national elections that selected President Hamid Karzai and a new parliament. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden planned the September 11, 2001, attacks from Afghanistan, where he built an army, terror training camps and a finance network.

Last year, there was an uptick in attacks as new Taliban and al Qaeda recruits organized in neighboring Pakistan and slipped across the border to Afghanistan to plant deadly improvised explosive devices and ambush security patrols.

Still, Afghanistan is far more peaceful than Iraq, the site of another al Qaeda-fed insurgency. And Gen. Jones seemed to signal that the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance is short-lived. He said one reason attacks are up percentagewise is that there were so few in 2004 that any increase seems significant.

He also said the emerging Afghan army is now operating in places it dare not go to a few years ago. “So the hiding places and the areas that were previously off-limits are now not off-limits,” he said.

Gen. Jones has a keen interest in Afghanistan, even though it falls within the operational responsibility of U.S. Central Command, led by Army Gen. John Abizaid.

A major component in Afghanistan is NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a group of European security forces who are training the Afghans, reconstructing public services, running the international airport and conducting counterinsurgency missions.

The ISAF is slated to take over the military mission, providing NATO with its first combat operation command far outside its traditional boundaries.

“At the end of the day, when ISAF takes over in Afghanistan, it will be roughly a 21,000-man force from 36 different nations,” Gen. Jones said. There are 10,000 ISAF troops and 20,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan. More than doubling the ISAF presence could mean that some of the U.S. troops will come home.

Central Command will continue to head the offensive counterterrorism mission, which includes the hunt for bin Laden, who is thought to be in the tribal areas of western Pakistan.

Defense and congressional officials say Afghanistan will not become a fully stable democracy until it rids itself of an embedded opium and heroin trade that corrupts the government and finances the insurgency.

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