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Published:October 18th, 2007 08:22 EST

Foreign fighters seen the rise in Afghanistan

By SOP newswire

Foreign fighters are entering Afghanistan from Pakistan in greater numbers than at any time since the Taliban was ousted in 2001, Afghanistan's defense minister said yesterday.

The minister also complained that some coalition members — notably Italy, Germany and Japan — have made only half-hearted efforts in rebuilding Afghanistan's security institutions.

"There are more foreign fighters in Afghanistan now than ever before," Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

He said the militants had been flooding in over the past two to three months, since Pakistan began an offensive in pro-Taliban tribal areas in the mountainous border region straddling the two countries.

Asked whether Pakistan — which has suffered numerous soldiers killed and wounded in the region in recent weeks — could do more to halt the infiltration, the minister said, "They can definitely do more."

While the Afghan army is improving its ability to counter the threat, principally through U.S. assistance, Gen. Wardak said the effectiveness of the national police and court system was weak, as were efforts to disarm and reintegrate members of the former Afghan military.

"The United States took the lead on creating the Afghan national army, which has been a success. The Italians took the justice system, [but] they have not dedicated any resources to it, so still that is a problem. A lot of the time, people are sent to the courts and then they are released, perhaps through corruption," he said.

"On the police reform, the Germans were supposed to be leading; they have not dedicated much effort and resources," said Gen. Wardak. "And in the [disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former Afghan forces] the Japanese did a 50-50 job."

Gen. Wardak said the international community was now moving away from the concept of giving different donor nations the responsibility for rebuilding specific sectors of the country.

"The lead nation should be Afghanistan," said Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador in Washington, who together with a contingent of Afghan and U.S. military officers accompanied Gen. Wardak to The Times.

The defense minister also acknowledged differences within the coalition over how best to fight the record cultivation of poppies, which has transformed Afghanistan into the world's largest producer of opium.

U.S. officials have been quoted arguing in favor of aerial spraying to eradicate the poppies, which are a lucrative source of income for insurgents, warlords and ordinary farmers.

But Gen. Wardak, who was trained by U.S. forces in the 1970s, said his government is agreed that aerial spraying would simply drive many farmers into the arms of the Taliban.

"It would actually turn the population totally against us and give the enemy a good weapon," he said.

Gen. Wardak was in Washington to seek increased help in training and equipping the Afghan army. He met with Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday, and is expected to talk to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, members of Congress and possibly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The defense minister said his government had been surprised by the success of "the enemy" in accumulating supplies, support and finance over the past two years.

Foreign fighters are coming mainly from Pakistan, but there are others of Arab origin, and some from Central Asia, Russia and Chechnya, he said.

Terrorists are "operating in much smaller groups and a much wider geographic area. They are relying heavily on [improvised explosive devices] and suicide bombings, which in some cases, has stretched our capabilities to its limits," said Gen. Wardak.

He said the majority of Afghan people are fed up with war, and just want peace and stability — something the government is still not able to provide, he said. The solution, the general emphasized, is to beef up the Afghan forces.

"We think that the quicker we stand on our own feet, we will be a lesser burden on our friends and allies. This is our country, and we have died for it for thousands of years. Throughout history, our only pride was that we defended our country," he said.

The general rejected the idea that U.S. troops are seen as an occupying force, saying his people have supported Operation Enduring Freedom wholeheartedly.

He said when European allies expressed concern about outstaying their welcome, he told them that if that were the case, "I would not sit at the same table with you."

By Sharon Behn

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