Taliban offensive unlikely in east Afghanistan-US

WASHINGTON, Jan 23 – A senior U.S. military commander said on Wednesday he did not expect the Taliban to mount a major offensive in eastern Afghanistan this spring, but experts warned of rising violence and a stronger insurgency.

Army Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez, the top commander of NATO troops in eastern Afghanistan, said Afghan security forces and other civilian authorities had established a stronger presence in the east of the country.

“I don’t think there will be a big spring offensive this year,” said Rodriguez, on a visit back to the United States.

“The people of Afghanistan don’t want the Taliban back and the strength of their institutions has grown significantly in the last year,” he said at the Pentagon.

Fighting has traditionally surged in Afghanistan in the spring after winter snows melt, allowing fighters to move around more easily.

U.S. officials say eastern Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan, has become substantially more stable in the past year, thanks to the work of U.S. troops and Afghan officials in countering the influence of Taliban Islamist militants.

But violence overall in Afghanistan has risen steadily for more than two years.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that total violence was up 27 percent from a year ago and up more than 60 percent in the southern province of Helmand, scene of the heaviest fighting.

Retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told Congress on Wednesday the security situation has deteriorated significantly since 2004 and the Taliban has clearly gained strength.

“The enemy in Afghanistan — a collection of al Qaeda, Taliban, Hezb-e Islami and foreign fighters — is unquestionably a much stronger force than the enemy we faced in 2004,” Barno told the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.

“I’m afraid it is an undeniable fact,” he said.

Barno said the number of roadside bombs in Afghanistan climbed from 325 in 2004 to 1,469 last year. The number of suicide bombings soared from three in 2004 to more than 130 in 2007, according to Barno.

While Rodriguez painted an optimistic picture, Barno and other experts testifying on Capitol Hill said U.S. and NATO success against the Taliban will depend directly on Pakistan’s willingness and ability to clamp down on al Qaeda and Taliban fighters based in its remote, largely ungoverned border area.

The U.S. military says al Qaeda and the Taliban have regrouped in Pakistan, largely along that mountainous border region where security forces have been battling al Qaeda-linked militants for years.

A recent wave of violence, including suicide bombs and the assassination of two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has heightened U.S. concerns about security there and its impact on Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan and Pakistan are joined at the hip,” said Karl Inderfurth, former assistant secretary of state for south Asian affairs during the Clinton administration.

“There can be no successful outcome for Afghanistan if Pakistan is not a part of the solution,” said Inderfurth, now a professor at The George Washington University.

The United States said last week it would send about 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan to help NATO troops fight the Taliban in the south and to train Afghan security forces. (Editing by David Wiessler)

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