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NATO commander: Drug trade is the greatest threat to Afghanistan

WASHINGTON _The top military commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said Monday that the narcotics trade poses a greater threat to Afghanistan than a rekindled insurgency by Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.

Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, NATO's supreme commander, said he doesn't think that Taliban and al-Qaida remnants can "restart an insurgency of any size or major scope," but that they're part of a "wider span of problems" that includes the opium trade and rampant criminality.

Last week, however, Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples said that attacks by Taliban and al-Qaida forces had increased by 20 percent in the last year.

Maples told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the insurgents represent a greater threat to Afghanistan now "than at any point since 2001," when U.S. troops and Afghan Northern Alliance rebels ousted the fundamentalist Taliban regime.

A total of 129 soldiers from the United States and its allies died in Afghanistan last year, more coalition deaths than in any other year since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, according to icasualties.org, a Web site that tracks U.S. and allied casualties. Of those, 99 were Americans. Those fatalities included combat deaths and deaths resulting from accidents and other non-combat related causes.

Jones said Monday that a 20 percent increase in attacks "is statistically not very significant" because the average number of daily attacks by Taliban and al-Qaida fighters had been "quite low."

"I don't think we're heading towards a revitalized insurgency," Jones told reporters at the Pentagon. "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."

About 21,000 NATO troops from 36 countries are preparing to take over stability and security operations in southern and eastern Afghanistan in coming months. NATO will very likely take over stability operations throughout Afghanistan by the end of 2006, Jones said.

Some U.S. troops will be included in the NATO force, but that number hasn't been determined. Most U.S. troops, however, will concentrate on areas in eastern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border, where Taliban, al-Qaida and other anti-government groups remain active and where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding. Those soldiers will operate under a separate authority that reports to U.S. Central Command. There currently are about 23,000 U.S. troops in the country.

Jones said NATO's primary mission will be to assist in extending the authority of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government across the country. Much of Afghanistan has never known central government rule and has been under the sway of powerful warlords since the Taliban's ouster.

Many of those figures are close U.S. allies, but some are believed to have profited immensely from the opium trade, which was nearly wiped out by the Taliban, but has exploded since its collapse. U.S. intelligence officials believe the Taliban, al-Qaida and other anti-government groups are financing their insurgency in part through the narcotics trade.

Karzai's government undertook an opium eradication program in 2004, and last year Afghanistan experienced a 21 percent decline in land devoted to poppy cultivation, the first since 2001. But opium production is likely to rise again this year, according to a U.N. report issued Monday.

The U.N. report, based on a survey carried out in December and January, said poppy cultivation is increasing in 13 Afghan provinces, remaining the same in 16 and decreasing in three.

Despite last year's decrease in overall land devoted to poppies, good weather and a low incidence of plant disease yielded a bumper crop of opium, the U.N. reported in November.

Last year, Afghanistan produced an estimated 4,100 tons of opium, the main ingredient in heroin, about 87 percent of the world's supply, the U.N. reported.

Most of the resulting heroin ended up in Europe, which is partly why NATO member countries have a keen interest in the Afghanistan mission, Jones said. He said that NATO troops won't participate directly in eradication, but will provide intelligence-gathering and surveillance.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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