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Situation in Afghanistan under control, Bush officials say

WASHINGTON—Bush administration officials said Wednesday that they expect fighting in Afghanistan to intensify in coming months as Taliban and al-Qaida fighters attempt to disrupt national assembly elections scheduled for September.

However, the officials said the United States and its allies have the country's security situation under control and that no increase in U.S. troops, which now number around 17,000, would be necessary. They said efforts to rebuild the country's political institutions, train and expand its army, disarm its warlords and stamp out opium production have made significant progress, but conceded that it could take years to correct some problems, especially drug trafficking.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said Afghanistan's presidential elections last October had left the Taliban and other extremists "split" and "demoralized," but that violence will likely spike again as the September elections near.

"We see some signs of it already," Rodman said. "But our analysis—our strategic analysis—is that the moderates of the country are winning their battle, they're building their institutions and that the extremists are isolated. And we hope that if we defeat them again politically in this election process, that we will again see a further strengthening of the moderate forces and a further weakening of the extremist."

Meanwhile, fighting in southern Afghanistan continued into its second day Wednesday, with U.S. warplanes pounding a suspected Taliban and al-Qaida haven. Twelve members of the Afghan security forces were reported killed, and five American soldiers were reported wounded. A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command said 40 insurgents had been killed in the fighting, which began on Tuesday.

Though he didn't address the latest fighting directly, Army Gen. Walter Sharp, the director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S.-Afghan offensives would continue through the summer, especially in southern and eastern Afghanistan, in an attempt to "weaken and destroy" Taliban and al-Qaida diehards.

"They believe this is their last chance, I think," Sharp told the committee. "They saw from the presidential election that they were not able to stop the people from Afghanistan from demanding democracy, willing to risk their lives to do that. This election coming up is even more critical."

Three allied countries were planning to send more troops to Afghanistan in late summer to help safeguard the elections, Sharp said, but he didn't name the three. He said the United States has troops available to send if necessary.

Sharp said there are about 29,000 U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan, between the United States and the International Security Assistance Force, which is under NATO control. The U.S. focus is on expanding the Afghan army, which he said now has more than 24,000 soldiers and is expected to have 70,000 by September 2007. U.S. trainers are embedded with those forces, which he said are taking part in 35 percent to 40 percent of U.S. operations and are "yielding terrific results."

Sharp said efforts to disarm Afghanistan's warlords and thousands of combatants have produced results. Nearly all of the known tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons in the country are now under the central government's control, he said.

The Defense Department plans to commit $242 million in anti-narcotics funds to combat the drug trade in Afghanistan this year, Sharp said. He suggested that NATO-led provincial reconstruction teams could begin taking a more active role in anti-drug efforts.

Last year, Afghanistan produced a "historically high" opium crop, with about 800 square miles under cultivation and 5,456 tons of potential production, said Nancy J. Powell, the acting secretary of state for anti-narcotics efforts. She outlined a five-point strategy for combating the problem, including law enforcement, interdiction and alternative crop programs, but she admitted that "there is no reason to expect the drug threat in Afghanistan will abate anytime soon."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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