By Jim Garamone
KABUL, Afghanistan, July 27, 2006 – The Taliban is a tactical problem for the coalition in Afghanistan, but the coalition is a strategic problem for the Taliban, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today. Marine General Peter Pace is in Afghanistan to meet with Afghan, coalition and NATO officials.
Fighting in Afghanistan is concentrated in the country's south, the area the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is due to take over in the next few days. More Taliban are "presenting themselves on the battlefield then there have been," Pace told reporters traveling with him. But Afghan and coalition forces have dealt the Taliban some heavy blows, he added.
The Taliban has not reconstituted since being routed by U.S.-led coalition forces following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. However, coalition officials in Kabul said, the group has "more robust" command and control and more weapons than in the recent past. "The Taliban can cause problems for us in certain areas of the country, but they can't sustain it," Pace said. "Whereas, as long as the coalition is here, the Taliban doesn't have a chance of reasserting itself and taking over the country. That's why I say they may be a day-to-day tactical problem for us, but we are a long-term strategic problem for them. They can pick and chose some battles, but they cannot take over this country again."
Pace said he sees this trip as an opportunity to thank the 21,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines serving in Afghanistan. The trip is also an opportunity to speak with leaders on their home ground. He said he plans to visit troops in the field "and hear first-hand from them how they think things are going." Pace said that opium cultivation is still a problem in Afghanistan, though officials hope the country's growing economy will stem the problem.
Roughly one-third of Afghanistan's gross national product comes from opium cultivation, down from past years, officials said. "The economy is getting stronger," Pace said. "Roads have been built that are opening up a lot of markets for the Afghan people. The more alternatives that folks have for a livelihood, the more likely it is that the drug trade will become a smaller and smaller part of the overall economy."
The Afghan government needs to provide viable economic alternatives to the country's citizens, Pace said. The chairman said the Afghan people should be proud of how far they have come in a short while. He added that the coalition and NATO military effort must remain strong. "From a military standpoint, what we can do is to continue to provide a secure environment inside which the Afghan government can provide assistance to its own people," he said.