Drugs great security threat in Afghanistan, NATO commander says

Drugs are a greater security threat in Afghanistan than a Taliban resurgence, NATO's top operational commander said Thursday, despite a rise in attacks blamed on remnants of the hard-line Islamic regime and their al-Qaida allies. "For my money, the number one problem in Afghanistan is drugs," U.S. Gen. James L. Jones told reporters during a stopover in Qatar on his way to the Afghan capital, Kabul, for talks with President Hamid Karzai.

Jones said it was too early to say if the spate of suicide bombings against NATO and U.S. forces represented isolated copycat incidents, or a long-term shift by Taliban fighters and their foreign allies toward the tactics used by insurgents in Iraq.

"The fact that there are any (attacks) is worrisome," Jones said, adding that part of his two-day Afghan visit would be to gather information from commanders on the ground about the recent attacks. Last month, a suicide car bomb killed a German peacekeeper on NATO duty in Kabul, as well as eight Afghans. Other recent suicide bombings have targeted U.S. and Canadian troops in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

Increased violence against the 9,000-strong NATO-led force has also seen the recent deaths of two Swedish soldiers and one from Portugal. Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said last month that intelligence indicated a number of Arab al-Qaida members and other foreigners had entered Afghanistan to launch suicide attacks. Wardak cited similarities to attacks in Iraq. However, Jones saw no risk of the Taliban making a major comeback. "I don't see that within the realm of the possible," he said.

The attacks have raised concerns among NATO allies as they prepare to send up to 6,000 more troops to expand the peacekeeping mission into the more volatile southern region around Kandahar, freeing U.S.-led forces to focus on counterinsurgencies.

The Dutch government has postponed a decision to authorize the deployment of more than 1,000 soldiers to play a key role in restive Urzgan province, due to public concern.

But Jones was confident the southward expansion would happen as planned early next year.

"The slowdown right now has to do with Dutch parliamentary issues," he said. "I'm very confident that will be resolved." NATO foreign ministers last week approved the southern expansion plan, which includes a more robust mandate for the troops and closer cooperation with the separate U.S.-led combat force of about 20,000. The NATO force is currently limited to Kabul and the relatively calm north and west. The new mandate also gives NATO a stronger role in supporting Afghan efforts against the burgeoning opium business, which supplies 80 percent of the world's heroin. But it stresses that NATO's role will be a supportive one and won't involve alliance soldiers burning poppy fields or launching military raids against drug producers, reports the AP. I.L.

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