U.S. Continues Fight Against Taliban in Afghanistan

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Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, talks to Renee Montagne about efforts to fight terrorism and bolster Afghanistan's fledgling government. Eikenberry says Taliban-related violence has increased in some parts of Afghanistan.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Afghanistan, the commanding general of U.S. troops often takes a local approach to his job. Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry tells this story about a recent trip to remote Meterlam in the eastern part of Afghanistan.

Lieutenant General KARL EIKENBERRY (Commanding General, Combined Forces Command, U.S. Army in Afghanistan): As we're going over the dusty roads there, passing by fields and nomadic tribesmen with camels, and getting down to the town where the huge town hall meeting, with about 100 of the tribal leaders and their turbans, following that with a walk through the bazaar, where we heard concerns from the people about what was bothering them in their lives: the government not allowing the shopkeepers to set up their shops right in the middle of the street, to the price of potatoes being too high.

MONTAGNE: General Eikenberry is in Washington, D.C., this week for briefings on larger issues: the fight against insurgents from the former Taliban regime; the handover, this summer, of some military operations to NATO; and the progress of President Hamid Karzai's new government.

But he says his local trips often provide him with the best indication of how the campaign in Afghanistan is going.

Lt. Gen. EIKENBERRY: I always come back with tremendous confidence when I see the great gratitude they have for the American Armed Forces and our coalition friends, and the NATO forces, that are there to make it a nation that's able to stand firm against the threats of international terrorism and militant extremism.

MONTAGNE: Now, we've been hearing a lot of talk about a resurgence of the Taliban; a spring offensive, if you will, roadside bombs copied, it would appear, from Iraq. How big of a concern is that? And what are U.S. troops able to do about to contain that?

Lt. Gen. EIKENBERRY: Renee, first of all, what province are we talking about? And then, if the answer is a particular province, I'll ask again the question, which district are we talking about? Afghanistan security is uneven. In the main 34 provinces, the trend lines, consistently from 2002, have been in the right direction. And particular districts of southern Afghanistan, I think it's fair to say the Taliban influence is stronger there than it was one year ago.

What accounts for that? First of all, not all violence is attributable to Taliban; other sources: criminality, narco-trafficking, tribal in-fighting. Having said that, in southern Afghanistan, you've got areas in which the government of Afghanistan has not established a firm presence. It's within that area of a vacuum that Taliban has established a greater influence.

What you'll see now, through the fall, is a variety of conditions will change in southern Afghanistan. President Karzai has selected a group, over the last year, of very good governors. Maybe most importantly, with the NATO expansion into southern Afghanistan, we will see then a much larger presence, which will enable behind that the reconstruction and the governance to improve.

MONTAGNE: General Eikenberry, Afghanistan now accounts for nearly 90 percent of the world supply of opium, from which most of Europe's heroin comes. You can go a mile or two outside of Kandahar and see poppies being grown. The military has been careful to stay away from eradication, arguing that it will alienate the very farmers and local people whose help it needs to fight back the Taliban and al-Qaida.

But the problem has gotten so big now, and the drug trade is partly supporting the enemy; can the military afford not to tackle it?

Lt. Gen. EIKENBERRY: Well, first of all, Renee, the military does not have the leading role in what, ultimately, is a law enforcement problem. Now, it's a complicated effort that's going to have to be sustained here. There is alternative livelihoods that must be offered to a farmer, who has, in the fourth poorest country in the world--if we eradicate there's instances where we may be consigning that farmer and his family to starvation over the winter. We have to be ready to have a very sustained comprehensive effort that's going to last several decades in order to beat it.

MONTAGNE: But, as you have just said, the drug trade has become a source of violence, which affects your troops.

Lt. Gen. EIKENBERRY: It's a source of violence in Afghanistan. And clearly, we keep an eye very carefully on the possibility of narco-trafficking funding terrorism, and narco-trafficking being linked to Taliban and extremist movements. We stay after it.

MONTAGNE: Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry is the commanding general of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Thanks very much for joining us.

Lt. Gen. EIKENBERRY: Renee, thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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