KABUL (Reuters) -The United States expects violence to increase in Afghanistan this year as NATO forces and the government push their authority into lawless areas infested by insurgents and drug gangs, a U.S. official said on Monday.
NATO members, including Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, are sending thousands of troops into the south as the alliance prepares to take over peacekeeping duties across the country.
“One of the unfortunate — maybe inevitable — side effects of that is we’ll probably see a rise in violence this year as NATO spreads into these areas in a more dense fashion, as the insurgents try to test the new forces, as the government takes on the narcotics traffickers,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher told reporters.
“I’m afraid that comes with the territory,” he said.
U.S. and Afghan opposition forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001 after they refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. The hard-line Islamists have been waging an insurgency ever since to oust foreign forces and overthrow the Western-backed government.
Last year was the most costly for U.S. forces since the 2001 invasion, with nearly 60 troops killed in combat. About 1,500 Afghans were killed, most of them insurgents.
Twelve Americans have been killed this year and violence has flared since the Taliban said last week they had launched a spring offensive.
The surge in violence has coincided with the NATO expansion and also comes as the United States is hoping to trim its Afghan force from about 19,000 to about 16,500.
U.S. forces in the volatile east will come under NATO command, perhaps as early as August, in the fourth and final phase of the 26-nation alliance’s expansion to take over responsibilities across the country.
But Boucher and U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald E. Neumann said any perception that the United States was disengaging from Afghanistan was wrong and would be dispelled.
“We’re here, we’re going to stay here, people are going to see us here for a long time to come, and that’s going to take care of the perception problem,” Boucher said.
Neumann said the United States would have the largest component in the NATO force and overall numbers of foreign troops would increase slightly.
NATO took over Afghanistan’s peacekeeping force, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), in 2003 while the United States has been commanding a separate international force, the majority American, battling insurgents and hunting their leaders in the south and east.
ISAF operates in the capital, Kabul, and the north and west. The planned move to the south unnerved public opinion in several European NATO countries after a spate of suicide attacks on foreign troops.
The transfer to ISAF of U.S. troops in the east will raise ISAF’s strength to between 23,000 and 25,000 troops.
Boucher is also due to visit Pakistan, which he said was facing the same problems in extending authority in border regions.
Pakistani forces have been battling foreign al Qaeda-linked militants for several years but Afghan officials have said Pakistan did not seem to be taking action against home-grown Taliban on the Pakistani side of the porous frontier.
Relations between the neighbors, vital U.S. allies in the war on terrorism, deteriorated in February following fresh Afghan complaints.
Boucher said the militants were killing foreign forces, Afghans and Pakistanis. “We’re doing all we can to encourage both sides to work these things together and to work with us on these issues, to see them as an integrated whole.”
“It’s a common problem and it needs a common solution.”