America's top military officer expressed concern Monday about the "growing level of collusion" between Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and al-Qaida and other militant groups taking refuge across the border in Pakistan.
Adm. Mike Mullen, in Kabul to discuss the upcoming U.S. troop buildup and training of Afghanistan's security force, told reporters he would discuss the issue with Pakistani authorities during talks in Islamabad later this week.
Painting a grim picture, Mullen said Afghan insurgents were dominant in a third of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and "the insurgency has grown more violent, more pervasive and more sophisticated."
"I remain deeply concerned by the growing level of collusion between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida and other extremist groups taking refuge across the border in Pakistan," Mullen said. "Getting at this network, which is more entrenched, will be a more difficult task than it was just one year ago."
Mullen's reference to militants based in Pakistan appeared aimed at U.S. efforts to press the Pakistani government to step up its crackdown on extremists who have long used their country as a refuge. The U.S. believes most of al-Qaida's top leadership has moved from Afghanistan to the lawless border area just inside Pakistan.
Mullen said, however, he was convinced that Pakistan was addressing the threat.
"I have seen Pakistan increase its commitment fairly dramatically over the past 12 to 18 months," said Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I am completely convinced that the government of Pakistan and the Pakistani military are very focused on this. They are going after this threat, as they have very clearly over the last year."
Last weekend, the Pakistani government announced it was winding down a major offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in its base in the South Waziristan border area and may launch a new operation in another district near the Afghan border where insurgent leaders are believed to have fled.
The Pakistanis launched the offensive in October against the Pakistani Taliban after a series of attacks against targets inside Pakistan. However, U.S. officials have complained privately that the Pakistanis have been reluctant to move against extremists who launch operations against U.S. and NATO targets inside Afghanistan, including the Haqqani group that is believed based in Pakistan's North Waziristan region.
Last week, U.S. officials in Washington said the Obama administration was considering widening missile strikes on al-Qaida and other militants inside Pakistan and planning to bolster the training of Pakistan's forces in the key border areas. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was sensitive.
Mullen's visit comes as the first of 30,000 U.S. reinforcements prepared to deploy to the 8-year-old war. He said he recently visited troops from Fort Campbell in Kentucky and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Some of the Marines from Camp Lejeune will arrive in Afghanistan this week, he said. Tens of thousands of tons of construction materials, winter gear and other equipment also are in the pipeline.
Underscoring the security crisis, Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior announced that 16 Afghan National Police were killed Monday in two separate attacks — one in northern Baghlan province and the other in the southern city of Lashkar Gah.
Mullen said he discussed the challenges of training the Afghan security forces, particularly the police, earlier Monday with Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar. He acknowledged concerns about corruption in the police force and evidence that the ranks of the police had been infiltrated by some militants.
"It's not just a quantity issue. It's a quality issue," Mullen said, referring to the police training.
He expressed condolences to the families of the policemen killed in the two attacks.
"None of us underestimate the challenges," he said. "This kind of loss obviously cannot be sustained and they must be properly trained."
Separately, Mullen was asked how important it was to kill or arrest Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, the top two leaders of the al-Qaida terrorist network.
"The most important goal in this strategy is the elimination of the safe havens for al-Qaida and its extremist allies and to ensure that Afghanistan does not provide a safe haven in the future," Mullen said. "Part of that certainly is to capture, kill bin Laden, Zawahri and their other compatriots. We think in the long run, that will certainly be part of what needs to happen in terms of defeating al-Qaida."
At a news conference in Kabul earlier in the day, Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman of the Ministry of Defense, said the troop buildup, a decrease in poppy cultivation in southern Afghanistan, and increased pressure on the hotbeds of the insurgency would yield improved security by the summer of 2010.
While an uptick in violence was likely this spring as the weather warms, security would improve by next summer, he said.
"We are slowly taking the responsibility from the international community," Azimi said. "Joint operations will continue for the next two years, but within four years, all operations will be led by the Afghan forces and they will call on the international forces if they are needed."
The 10,000-member Afghan army is expected to swell to 150,000 by March 2011.
Azimi said 455 members of the Afghan National Army have died so far this year. In the past eight years, 1,601 Afghan soldiers have been killed.
Despite the danger, Gen. Mohammad Hbraim Ahmadzai, deputy commander of recruiting for the Afghan National Army, said recruitment was on the rise, spurred by a campaign in mosques and other public places. More than 7,050 new soldiers were recruited since the end of November, Ahmadzai said.
A raise in pay has also helped retain soldiers in the force, he said.
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