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US Senators Question Administration Strategy for Afghanistan

U.S.-led coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan say they have captured a bomb-making expert with links to al-Qaida. The capture of Mullah Mahmood in Jalalabad follows an increase in attacks last year on coalition forces and civilians. A U.S. Senate committee questioned what one senator called a failure of the Bush administration's polices in Afghanistan. The VOA's Jim Fry reports:

In Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan, NATO targets Taleban insurgents in an offensive launched this week and dubbed Operation Achilles.

On a road in Kandahar -- a suicide bomber attacked a Canadian convoy, wounding five civilians. And U.S. officials say there has been an increase in bombings and a resurgence of Taleban and al-Qaida operations in the last year.

Such developments worry members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Chairman Joseph Biden, who said, "The last year has been the bloodiest since the ouster of the Taleban."

Another senator, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, questioned Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher: "That strikes me as a pretty profound failure of our policies. Do you agree?"

Boucher replied, "We are there. We are trying to meet them. And I think we are better set up this year to deal with that than we were in previous years."

Q. "What does it say about our policies--"

A. "It says we have not finished the job."

Boucher says NATO has increased its presence in the country to 23,000 soldiers. The U.S. troop number is up by 3,300 this year -- also now at 23,000.

Military and government leaders say a NATO-led offensive in the south last year turned back challenges by the Taleban.

"We stopped them from achieving their goals last year," said Boucher. "But we have not established dominance or got them on the run yet."

Boucher says the Bush administration is seeking $2 billion from Congress this year for new roads and other reconstruction in Afghanistan. Attention also is turning to Afghanistan's lucrative poppy crop.

The U.S. claims that more than 90 percent of the world's opium comes from those fields. NATO forces will try to eradicate narcotics crops, but Boucher says much more help is required.

"You have to build a different rural economy. So it is not [that] you give them a different crop. It is: You give them a road and electricity and irrigation."

As winter turns to spring, there is concern now that the Taleban and al-Qaida will launch new military offensives from the eastern mountains and in the south. U.S. officials insist coalition forces are more capable this year.

Boucher told the senators, "The enemy's been spending the winter building bombs and designing tactics. It is going to be nasty. It is going to be difficult but I think we are better able to cope."

Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee expressed skepticism. But with terrorist and Taleban forces still present in the country, the U.S. lawmakers say failure is unthinkable.