Drug gangs to blame for much of Afghan violence
Casteau, Belgium (AP) - The commander of NATO’s operations insisted Monday that an increase in violence in southern Afghanistan did not indicate a resurgence of the Taliban, blaming much of the violence on drug gangs resisting efforts to cut opium production in the region.
“It’s tempting to label everything as Taliban, but I’m persuaded that is not the case,” said Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones.
Recent months have seen an increase in attacks on international and Afghan troops as NATO prepares to expand its peacekeeping force from the relatively stable north and west into the south, which includes former Taliban strongholds and major opium-producing areas.
About 6,000 mainly British, Canadian and Dutch soldiers have started deploying in the remote tribal-dominated southern region. The NATO force is expanding from around 8,000 to a total of over 20,000 as its peacekeepers fan out across the whole country.
Four Canadian soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing and unidentified militants also fired four rockets into the U.S.-led coalition base in Kandahar over the weekend.
Although Taliban extremists were widely blamed for the bombing, Jones said such roadside bombs were also used by other forces. “It’s not a religious weapon anymore,” Jones told reporters at NATO’s military headquarters in southern Belgium.
He downplayed any threat from the ousted regime and said the expanded NATO force would be able to handle it.
“We are confident that the upcoming expansion of NATO will more than answer the military requirements,” Jones said. “The number of (Taliban) fighters that we’re talking about in the southern provinces is still really low in terms of mounting massed attacks.”
The increase in violence was “predictable and anticipated” given the spring thaw and increased efforts by Afghan authorities to tackle the opium trade.
NATO is due take control of the southern region on July 31, taking over from U.S.-led forces there. Jones expressed confidence they would be able to “stabilize the situation rather quickly.” He hoped U.S. troops in the east of the country would be brought under NATO command soon after that, giving the alliance responsibility for peacekeeping across the whole of the country.
A separate U.S.-led force will remain to continue counterinsurgency operations and the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his allies.
Jones said NATO headquarters was following the growing tension between Iran and the West over that country’s nuclear program, but stressed “there is no NATO guideline to allied command ... with regard to the situation in Iran.”
“No capital has asked NATO to do anything with regard to Iran,” he added.
By Paul Ames