The increase in violence in southern Afghanistan in recent months results more from weak government institutions than a major resurgence of the Taliban, the commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in the country said Wednesday.
The spike in violence comes as the U.S. military force has grown from about 20,000 to 23,000 since the beginning of the year. The coalition commander, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, told Pentagon reporters that he is not yet ready to make recommendations to reduce U.S. troop levels.
Eikenberry said the influence of the Taliban, whose government was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, is stronger than it was last year in the Kandahar, Helmand and Oruzgan provinces, in southern and south-central Afghanistan. He also said the number of Taliban fighters may have increased in the past few months.
At the same time the number of suicide bombings and explosive devices has risen. Eikenberry and other Pentagon officials could not provide details on how much the violence has jumped in recent months or specifics on the number of attacks.
But Eikenberry said the solution may be more political than military. The country, he said, needs a stronger government as well as improvements in the police forces.
In some southern districts, Eikenberry said, "it's not necessarily the strong enemy, it's the very weak institutions of the state that ... in that weakness, you have Taliban influence able to move in there, and through coercion of the people, assert that influence."
Speaking at the Pentagon, Eikenberry acknowledged that serious challenges are ahead, including battles against narcotics traffickers and criminals as well as tribal conflicts.
"We are winning, but the war is not yet won," Eikenberry said. "I don't want to discount the enormous obstacles that remain." He said the most significant threats to the country's stability are drug trafficking and government corruption.
Eikenberry said that after coalition military victories last year, insurgents changed tactics. Now, he said, they burn schools and intimidate moderate religious and tribal leaders who support the government.
The commander said the military is continuing to look for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and trying to work with the Pakistan military to quash the insurgency along the border.
In the coming months, the U.S. is planning to turn over control of the south to NATO's International Security Assistance Force. Although the U.S. will continue to provide the largest number of troops, helicopters and intelligence officers.
NATO plans to deploy about 8,000 soldiers to southern Afghanistan starting around the beginning of August. By November, about 21,000 NATO soldiers — compared with about 10,000 now — are expected in Afghanistan as the alliance gradually assumes command of all international forces there.
LOLITA C. BALDOR
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