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Fight urged against opium, corruption in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON—Pakistan arrested a senior Taliban leader for the first time this week, but success in Afghanistan depends less on defeating the militant Islamist group than it does on curbing the country's growing opium trade and cleaning up corrupt courts and police, a former NATO commander told a Senate committee on Thursday.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones said that NATO and the United States can defeat the Taliban, which harbored al-Qaida until the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, but he argued that the nation's biggest problem is its growing dependence on narcotics trafficking.

Jones also said that the judicial system in Afghanistan is "on life support," with top judges susceptible to corruption because they earn only $100 a month, less than the cost of renting an apartment in Kabul.

The news of the arrest and Jones' testimony came on the same day that the State Department released its 2007 International Narcotics Control Strategies Report, which said that Afghanistan produced a record 5,644 metric tons of opium in 2006, a 26 percent jump from the previous year. The State Department said there was "strong evidence" that drug trafficking was funding the Taliban.

Under pressure from the United States and NATO to crack down on Taliban forces in areas of the country bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan arrested Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, the defense minister in the Taliban regime that took power in Kabul in 1996, two U.S. officials said Thursday.

The arrest came the day before Vice President Dick Cheney discussed the issue with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, in Islamabad.

The U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that Akhund was arrested on Monday in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan province.

His presence there appeared to support charges by Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials that Taliban leaders have been directing the insurgency in Afghanistan from the city. Pakistan has denied the assertion.

"I don't think the Taliban is 10 feet tall," Jones said Thursday. The extremist Islamic group and allied al-Qaida fighters have more access to money because of the drug trade, he said, and they're trying to kill enough NATO soldiers so that public pressure will build in NATO countries that have contributed troops to pull them out.

"This can be halted if we do the things that will swing the (Afghan) people around to supporting the government," he said.

Jones commanded NATO from 2003 until December during the time when Afghanistan became the alliance's main mission. His testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee came as Congress turns its attention to the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan as it debates whether to reduce the U.S. military effort in Iraq.

Barnett Rubin, a leading Afghanistan expert, told the committee that the United States has put too much emphasis on the military and too little on civilian efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.

Rubin surprised the committee with a story about Iranian officials wanting to help the United States against al-Qaida in Afghanistan but getting rebuffed.

Rubin said he met with Iranian officials he'd known for many years in Kabul in November. He didn't identify them, but said they'd "been involved with Afghanistan for a long time" and believed that al-Qaida, the Sunni Muslim terrorist group, posed a major threat to mostly Shiite Muslim Iran.

"They told me they had some information about it and they would like to cooperate with the United States, but neither their government in Tehran nor our government in Washington had authorized the sharing of that information, which they found frustrating," Rubin said.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the committee chairman, said Rubin's testimony would be sent to the State Department.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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