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U.S. Official Says Taliban Is on the Rise

Times Staff Writer

Escalating insurgent violence in Afghanistan has placed the fledgling government there in greater peril than at any time since the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, a senior American intelligence official testified Tuesday.

The stark assessment comes as sectarian violence soars in Iraq, underscoring the daunting challenges the United States and its allies face years after invading the two countries.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said attacks in Afghanistan by remnants of the ousted Taliban government and other groups had surged 20% in the last year.

“We judge insurgents now represent a greater threat to the expansion of Afghan government authority than at any point since late 2001 and will be active this spring,” Maples said in a statement submitted to the committee. The DIA is the Pentagon’s main source for analysis of military threats around the world.

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Maples pointed out that Afghanistan held national and provincial legislative elections in September, and he said the country’s efforts to disarm private militias had “steadily progressed over the last year.” But he warned of a persistent and growing threat from forces loyal to the Taliban, whose regime was supported by Al Qaeda and allowed the terrorist network to operate training camps in the country before a coalition of U.S.-led forces invaded.

“The Taliban-dominated insurgency remains capable and resilient,” Maples said.

His testimony was part of an annual threat assessment the nation’s top intelligence officials provide to members of the Armed Services Committee. Maples appeared alongside National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte and his principal deputy, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden.

Negroponte was cautious in his assessments of the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the recent bombing of a Shiite Muslim mosque touched off a convulsion of reprisals and sectarian violence.

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Negroponte stressed that religious and political leaders in Iraq had been “a force of restraint,” and said that although Iraq’s newly elected government had yet to meet, its existing interim government was “functioning and will function.”

Negroponte also touched on the controversy over the Bush administration’s decision to grant control over some U.S. ports to a company owned by the government of Dubai. Negroponte said the U.S. intelligence community had reviewed the proposed deal and found the potential threat to American security to be low.

“We did not see any red flags come up in the course of our inquiry,” Negroponte said, though he added that “there is no such thing, in our view, as zero risk.”

Maples was more blunt in many of his assessments, saying at one point that he agreed with those who believe that Iraq could be on the edge of civil war.

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“I believe that the underlying conditions are present,” he said, “but that we are not involved in a civil war at this time.”

Maples’ comments about Afghanistan followed numerous attacks and bombings in recent months that have underscored the government’s inability to control territory beyond the capital of Kabul, particularly in southern areas that have long been Taliban strongholds.

On Tuesday, an American was killed and two were wounded in a clash with insurgents in Oruzgan province, wire services reported.

One of the most disturbing trends has been a surge in the number of suicide bombings, which were rare in Afghanistan before the Taliban regime was toppled. Maples said that suicide attacks in Afghanistan had almost quadrupled in the last year and that the violence could accelerate as winter gives way to spring.

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Maples also cited a rise in the use of improvised explosive devices, typically roadside bombs that can be detonated remotely. He said that the number of attacks using such bombs had doubled and that insurgents had “increasingly used beheadings to terrorize the local population.”


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