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NATO commander downplays Afghan insurgency threat
Updated: 2006-03-07 11:00

NATO's top commander said on Monday he doubted Taliban and al Qaeda forces were capable of posing a serious insurgent threat as the alliance expands its Afghanistan operations, calling narcotics the top worry.

NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. James Jones also said the 26-nation alliance remained 25 percent short of the troops and equipment envisioned for its rapid-reaction force, and expressed renewed doubt he will be able to declare it fully operational as planned on October 1.

US-led forces in 2001 overthrew Afghanistan's Taliban rulers who had harbored the al Qaeda network responsible for the September 11 attacks, and 23,000 US troops currently are targeting Taliban and al Qaeda forces.

A wave of suicide bombings in recent months has killed dozens of people, part of an intensified insurgency that has killed more than 1,500 people since the start of last year. It has been the bloodiest period since the Taliban's overthrow, and the US military warned of stepped up militant activity this spring.

"I think they are remnants," Jones said of the Taliban and al Qaeda at a Pentagon briefing. "... And I think that the upticks in violence are, in part, attributable to the fact that we're actually going to more places and taking the engagement to the enemy."

"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 Jones, a US Marine Corps general.

Afghanistan, he said, was "fighting some internal demons."

"And one is certainly the narcotics culture and the dependence of the economy on narcotics -- which, from my standpoint, is probably the most serious problem facing the restructuring and the new path that Afghanistan would like to go on."


NATO is preparing to expand its International Security Assistance Force mission -- already in the north, west and the capital Kabul -- to the more volatile south, going from 9,000 to 16,000 troops, and ultimately the east. Jones sees the southward expansion by July.

The State Department last week said opium production and trafficking make up a third of Afghanistan's economy. Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world's opium poppies and is the largest heroin-producing and trafficking country.

Jones said concerted international action was needed.

"NATO's role in it is not to be an active participant, for example, in destroying crops and eradication. NATO does have a responsibility to be supportive and helpful, but in the more passive areas -- in other words, in the intelligence-gathering, oversight, overwatch, security," Jones said.

"Ninety percent of the harvest in Afghanistan is bought on the streets of Europe and translated back into supporting terrorist activities in Europe. So there's a real reason that we should all be concerned about this."

The NATO Response Force, proposed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2002, was supposed to have 25,000 troops deployable to distant trouble spots with five days' notice.

"At this point, we have not generated the force in sufficient numbers for me to be comfortable with standing up here and saying we will be successful," Jones said. "... We have generated about 75 percent of the requirement. So we're about 25 percent short."

Jones said he was "hopeful" but added, "As of right now, if this were 1 October today, I would not be standing here saying that we're fully operationally capable."
Jones said last month NATO was scaling back the force's first major maneuvers set for June.

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