- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

NATO’S top commander said yesterday that Taliban insurgents have retreated in southern Afghanistan after taking heavy losses from a British-led force of U.S. allies and that a reconstruction phase has begun.

“The Taliban decided to make a test case of this region,” Marine Gen. James Jones, supreme allied commander in Europe, said at the Pentagon. “The outcome of it was that they retreated and we are now in the consolidation phrase and we are going to start to bring aid and reconstruction to the region.”

Gen. Jones recapped months of fighting in Operation Medusa in southern Afghanistan around Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace and the city from which the hard-line Islamic movement sprung to wrest control of most of the country in the 1990s.

He said the south was generally absent of allied military forces until NATO took command earlier this year and introduced 6,000 troops, disrupting a Taliban resurgence.

“We have disturbed the hornets’ nest and the hornets are swarming,” he said. “We need to make them understand that nest is not going to be there for them anymore.”

He added, “I’ve said that we were surprised by the level of violence and that’s true. But what was really most surprising is the change in tactics because they decided to stand and fight in a fairly conventional linear sense, and they paid a very heavy price for it.”

The military estimates that Medusa killed 1,000 to 1,500 Taliban from a hard-core force of up to 4,000 fighters. The Taliban is augmented by civilians who are recruited with about $200 each to fight for several days.

At the United Nations, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a speech to world leaders that his country needs continued support. He made an indirect reference to neighboring Pakistan, whose tribal areas host reorganizing Taliban forces.

“Terrorism does not emanate from within Afghanistan,” Mr. Karzai said. “Afghanistan is its worst victim. Military action in Afghanistan alone, therefore, will not deliver our shared goal of eliminating terrorism.

“We must look beyond Afghanistan to the sources of terrorism. We must destroy terrorist sanctuaries beyond Afghanistan, dismantle the elaborate networks in the region that recruit, indoctrinate, train, finance, arm and deploy terrorists.”

Gen. Jones stopped short of saying the Taliban is defeated. He predicted the movement will revert to terror attacks on innocent civilians.

He acknowledged the power of drug lords who oversee record production of a poppy crop that produces opium and heroin for the world market.

“They are also a force to be reckoned with, and they have good reasons to want the Taliban to stay in business and good reasons to support them financially,” he said. “So that’s another big problem.”

He said the southern allied force, made up of Canadian, Danish, Dutch, British and American troops, sent a signal that “NATO forces would not back down from exercising robust and overwhelming combat power when necessary.”

“It also was designed to demoralize the Taliban and their supporters and deter them from believing that they could achieve a military victory.” Troops from Romania, Portugal and Estonia played support roles.

He described southern Afghanistan before NATO’s arrival as “beset by criminal and lawlessness, ineffective governmental structures and no permanent troop strength of any consequences” since the Taliban was ousted in December 2001.

The general also said that NATO nations that originally balked at supplying 2,000 additional troops have agreed to contribute to a quick-reaction force, although it was not needed expressly for Operation Medusa. The total allied force stands at about 20,000.

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