Nato: Taliban's resurgence due to world focus on Iraq

Afghanistan’s Taliban rebels have taken advantage of a power vacuum and grown stronger because the world’s attention has been distracted by Iraq, the commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) forces in the country said.

British General David Richards said he was “optimistic” of defeating the movement, whose recent resurgence has led to the worst violence in Afghanistan since the Taliban were toppled by United States-led forces in late 2001.

“There’s no doubt there is a resurgent Taliban problem,” he told the BBC’s Pashtu-language service late on Thursday.

“Why? Largely it’s because people took their eye off this ball and a vacuum was allowed to develop and that vacuum was filled by the Taliban.

“I think, probably internationally, for a while Iraq absorbed people’s interest and resources.”

Richards’s comments follow criticisms by President Hamid Karzai of the way anti-terror operations have been conducted. Karzai last week said it was unacceptable that hundreds had been killed in Afghanistan, even if they were Taliban.

Richards will take command at the end of July in southern Afghanistan, where the rebels are most active and where he said too little effort had been expended in the past.

“I’m critical of the whole international community for not listening sufficiently closely to all Afghans, in particular the Afghan government,” Richards added.

“Probably we all underestimated the potential for a resurgence. But that is no longer the case.”

US-led coalition and Afghan forces in the middle of last month launched a major offensive against the Taliban, called Operation Mountain Thrust. Since then more than 600 people have been killed, most of them militants.

Richards said that “is not too late to put the Taliban back in the box”.

“As well as the stick, we need to offer many more carrots,” he added, saying the Nato force will be able to offer development and humanitarian aid.

US-led coalition and Nato forces have been in Afghanistan since late 2001 when the fundamentalist Taliban were toppled for failing to hand over al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden following the September 11 attacks on the US.

But US resources were stretched by the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and Washington has been pressing for other countries to take the burden of operations in Afghanistan.

More than 37 000 foreign troops are currently in Afghanistan aiding the fledgling Afghan security forces to impose authority in remote areas where the government has little presence and to hunt down Taliban insurgents.

About 10 000 troops from 37 countries serve in the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf). Isaf has been deployed in Afghanistan since 2001 and has been mandated by the United Nations since August 2003.

The force has been operating in north and west Afghanistan and Kabul but is due to expand into the south and eventually to the east this year. By the end of July it is due to expand in number to about 18 000.

Meanwhile, a US-led coalition of about 27 000 troops is based mainly in southern and eastern Afghanistan, areas bordering Pakistan where the Taliban are most active and where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Kabul on Wednesday, reaffirming support for the embattled Karzai and pledging that Washington will not allow Afghanistan’s “ruthless enemies” to succeed.—AFP

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