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US Diplomat: Taleban Not Strategic Threat to Afghanistan

A senior U.S. diplomat is playing down the resurgence of the Taleban in Afghanistan, saying it poses no real threat to the government of President Hamid Karzai.

In a speech Tuesday to an Afghan investment conference in Washington, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said the surge of attacks by the Taleban does not pose any long-term threat to the Afghan government.

"Security has to be the primary concern of any government, at any level of government,” he said. “And while we've seen an increased number of attacks in the regions and some of the provincial cities and even in Kabul and Kandahar themselves over the past few months, we do not believe that these attacks pose a strategic threat to the central government. But they do have an effect because they prevent government from operating at the provincial level."

In a brief interview after the speech, Burns said he was not saying there is no security threat in Afghanistan. But, he added, the Afghan government is stable.

"We don't believe the Taleban represent a strategic threat in this sense: the government of Afghanistan is secure,” he said. “And there's a problem of security in Afghanistan. It's primarily in the east and in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Uruzgan and Helmand.

It is in those areas, Burns said, that U.S. and allied forces are, along with Afghan troops, fighting the Taleban.

"And that's where you find the Canadians and British and Dutch and Australian and American forces,” he added. “And we are taking the battle to the Taleban along with the Afghan forces beside us and working with us. And we intend to continue that because that's our responsibility as a friend to Afghanistan itself."

Barnett Rubin, senior fellow of New York University's Center for International Cooperation, says the Taleban may not pose a strategic threat in the conventional military sense. But Rubin, who was a U.N. advisor in the Afghan peace negotiations after the Taleban fell in 2001, says the Taleban is eating away at the Kabul government's authority.

"The Taleban pose a very serious threat to the government of Afghanistan,” he said. “They do not pose a conventional military threat to NATO, the U.S.-led coalition, or the Afghan government, which is unfortunately what U.S. planners seem to have in mind when they make statements like 'the Taleban do not pose a strategic threat.' But the Taleban are very successfully undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan government."

Rubin says the Afghan government's failure so far to provide services like adequate roads and electricity give political ammunition to the Taleban.

"They [the Taleban] are showing that it cannot provide security to people, cannot provide development, and that it cannot provide good relations with its neighbors,” he added. “They are attempting to show that they are a better alternative, and they have provoked NATO and the United States, unfortunately, into undertaking actions that make Afghans perceive them as occupiers."

The Taleban have increasingly adopted tactics used by insurgents in Iraq, such as suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices. At least 65 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan this year, according to the Department of Defense, and about 70 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan during 2005.