- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

British Defense Secretary John Hutton said Wednesday that the Afghanistan war has reached a “stalemate” and that the militant networks operating in Afghanistan from Pakistan’s borderless tribal region also present a grave threat to Pakistan’s democratic government.

Mr. Hutton told reporters that his country, which has about 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, is actively involved in the U.S. strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan and that Britain “is in this for the long haul.”

The fighting is expected to intensify this spring, as more U.S. forces join front-line troops in Afghanistan’s southwestern region of Helmand and the Taliban responds from inside and outside Afghanistan.

An Afghan official who works with international forces told The Washington Times by phone that a “lack of security and poverty has driven many in the province into the hands of the Taliban again and in reality international forces are barely holding on.” The official spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the nature of his work.

The Obama administration will have about 60,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of August and is considering keeping a large number of U.S. forces in the country for several years, said a participant in the Afghanistan-Pakistan review who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

U.S. military officials have been calling for months for more troops to stabilize Helmand.

“Helmand is holding, but it’s not making any progress so we can bring in development,” said Col. Gregory S. Julian, a spokesman for Gen. David D. McKiernan, who commands all U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

“McKiernan has been asking for additional resources from the international community, including the U.S. military, since he arrived last year, and he’s very happy to have any additional resources to break the extremists.”

Mr. Hutton warned that there is “no silver bullet” to resolve the problems.

“The situation is not what I’d like it to be,” Mr. Hutton said. “The best way to describe it is stalemate. Stalemate is not good enough.”

Next to the United States, Britain has the second largest contingent of combat troops in Afghanistan and has lost 152 personnel since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.

So pervasive is the Taliban’s control of Helmand, Afghans say, that farmers have little choice but to grow opium, which the militant groups use to finance their battle against U.S.-led forces.

“Many of the farmers are farmers during the day and Taliban fighters during the night,” the Afghan official said. “We have been fighting wars for nearly 30 years. These men know it’s not about winning a war but depleting the international forces’ resources and time.”

Mr. Hutton said Pakistan’s own battle against the terrorist networks is complicating matters and that militants based in the border regions present a “very, very serious counterinsurgency threat” to the Pakistani government.

Political maneuvers by the Pakistani authorities to achieve quiet in tribal regions and in the Swat Valley, less than 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad, seem to run counter to efforts to oust extremists from their refuge in the country. Shariah law has been imposed in the Swat Valley and three Pakistani Taliban groups united recently to consolidate strength.

Pakistani Ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani said economic assistance is a key factor to mitigating the growth of al Qaeda and Taliban adherents.

“The United States needs to understand that this is Pakistan’s war against terror,” he said in an earlier interview with The Times. He emphasized that Pakistan is a “fledgling democracy” but that in order for it to survive, it must be able to “meet the needs of the people.”

• Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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