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US Lawmakers Request More Security in Afghanistan - 2004-09-23

U.S Lawmakers have expressed renewed concern about the security situation in Afghanistan, saying more must be done to safeguard the Afghan people so they can go to the polls on October 9. A congressional hearing Thursday featured some sharp criticism of European contributions to efforts in Afghanistan.

For months, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been urging the Bush administration to work harder to bring a larger and quicker response from European allies to needs in Afghanistan.

Specifically, there is dissatisfaction with the speed of NATO contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and what are called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) on the road to NATO's taking over the entire security burden.

Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos singles out four European countries: France, Germany, Spain and Belgium for criticism.

Citing what he calls their refusal to participate in training of Iraqi security forces, Mr. Lantos says the problem of reluctance pertains to Afghanistan as well.

"This historically unique, and shortsighted, and criminal lack of judgment extends also to the support for Afghanistan's future," said Mr. Lantos. "Without a greater NATO deployment to provide proper security, Afghanistan's potentially triumphant exercise of freedom could be come a tragedy with dozens of terror attacks against polling stations."

Lieutenant General Walter Sharp of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the United States is working closely with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Karzai government on security for the election.

But he acknowledges there are still issues with NATO on deployments aimed at meeting stabilization and reconstruction needs. "NATO's next step remains expansion beyond its present operating area in northern and western Afghanistan," said Mr. Sharp. "The alliance must generate forces required for ISAF expansion in western Afghanistan to include another four PRTs. Ultimately, NATO should assume responsibility for security and stability operations in the country. So we are working with them on these challenges to facilitate this goal."

Currently, Germany has about 2000 troops in the Afghanistan security force, and also runs one provincial reconstruction team.

Lieutenant General Sharp said the greatest threat in Afghanistan remains al-Qaida, Taliban, and other military groups operating along the Pakistan border and in the south.

Another uncomfortable issue for the Bush administration has been rising opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials have acknowledged in past hearings that counter-narcotics may be a political priority, it has not been a main priority for U.S. forces since the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, expressed his frustration.

"For now the drug lords are getting stronger faster than the Afghan authorities are being built up," he noted. "In other words, we're falling further behind. If we wait, we will have to return to Afghanistan in great force once again, because we will be unable to prevent the country from descending into the sort of absolute chaos upon which terrorists thrive."

Robert Charles, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Affairs, says opium figures to be released soon will show yet another increase, adding that a lack of security is hampering eradication.

"Without security, crucial eradication efforts cannot rise to the necessary level required to deter heroin poppy cultivation," added Mr. Charles.

In his testimony, Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman reassured lawmakers there is a political and military strategy leading to elections in Afghanistan.

In advance of the elections, the United States announced an additional 1,000 troops from the U.S. 82nd Airbone Division to help provide security.

Three more U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan this week, while more than a dozen were wounded.