By Gerry J. Gilmore
WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2006 – NATO forces have given the Taliban a good thrashing in the extremist group's traditional home in southern Afghanistan, but threats to that nation's long-term stability remain, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe told a Senate committee here today. NATO's International Security Assistance Force has proved to be a viable presence for stability in Afghanistan by combating Taliban extremists and assisting in national reconstruction efforts, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones said during his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Jones, who also is commander of U.S. European Command, recalled that NATO began its Afghanistan mission in the national capital of Kabul in 2003. ISAF operations expanded into northern Afghanistan in 2004, he continued, and then moved west in 2005.
On July 31, the ISAF took responsibility for Afghanistan's southern region. About 20,000 NATO troops are deployed in Afghanistan, Jones said, and 37 countries are involved in reconstruction efforts.
"In the not-too-distant future I feel confident that NATO will also expand to the eastern region, which will complete the circle," Jones said, providing NATO, "responsibility for stability and security through the totality of the landmass in Afghanistan, with a very special relationship with Operation Active Endeavor."
Operation Active Endeavor will be the U.S.-led coalition that conducts separate, high-intensity counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, Jones explained. ISAF will continue to play a security role, he said, as it simultaneously tends to the training of Afghan police and military forces, as well as assisting with reconstruction projects.
Jones saluted the spirit of teamwork displayed in Afghanistan among U.S., coalition and Afghan forces, noting he's "quite confident that it will continue that way in the future."
The Taliban in southern Afghanistan have engaged in open battles with NATO forces in recent months in an attempt to eject them from their home turf, Jones noted. The recently concluded Operation Medusa was successful, he noted, in soundly defeating Taliban elements in Kandahar province.
Canadian, American, British, Dutch, Romanian, Danish, Estonian, Polish and Portuguese troops involved in Operation Medusa "performed extraordinarily well," Jones pointed out.
NATO forces suffered causalities during the fighting in southern Afghanistan, Jones said. He praised their bravery and expressed his condolences to their families.
The Taliban risked open battles with NATO forces because they felt pressured to do so, Jones said, noting that up to then, there hadn't been large numbers of anti-terrorist forces deployed in the region.
Yet, ultimate success in Afghanistan isn't predicated solely upon a military solution, Jones said. Training of soldiers and police, as well as reconstruction and reform efforts, he said, also play a major role.
He described the training of Afghan National Army soldiers as "the most successful pillar" of Afghan reconstruction efforts, to date. Afghanistan's army now has 30,000 soldiers, Jones said, noting the total number of trained troops will eventually top out at around 70,000.
"The Afghan people are proud of this developing army," Jones said. "They identify with it," he said, because it has earned the reputation of a capable, strong institution in Afghanistan.
But, "while we're making some progress, in my judgment much more needs to be done in the training of (Afghan) police officers," the four-star general said. Afghan police must be provided adequate training, equipment and pay, he noted, and steps should be taken to weed out departmental corruption.
Another pressing issue involves the low pay of prosecutors in Afghanistan's judicial system, which makes them susceptible to corruption, Jones said.
"This is simply a situation that cannot be allowed to stand if we're serious about judicial reform," Jones said.
However, Jones said he worries most about Afghanistan's growing narcotics business.
"Afghanistan does not need to be a narco-state, but it is, unfortunately, well on its way," Jones said. More Afghan farmers, he explained, are ceasing to cultivate traditional crops in favor of growing higher-profit-producing opium poppies.
"We need to find the right means to ensure that farmers can economically grow and sell legal produce in addition to developing an overarching and understandable way ahead in the overall fight against narcotics," Jones said.
Jones said about 90 percent of Afghanistan's narcotics products end up in illegal drug marketplaces across Europe.
And, "the money comes back to Afghanistan and other places where terrorism is evident," Jones noted. Terrorists use drug money to buy components for improvised explosive devices and other weaponry that kills or wounds U.S. and allied troops, he said.
Current estimates say this year's Afghan poppy harvest in will exceed last year's by as much as 59 percent, Jones said.
"This is a problem, and a situation that is going in the wrong direction," he said.
Proper training of Afghan police, moving ahead with judicial system reform and developing an effective counter narcotics program constitute "three of the most important things that must be done in Afghanistan in the near future," Jones said.