U.S. commander in Afghanistan says more attacks likely if there

Saturday, December 21, 2002

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- Attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan are likely to increase if there is war in Iraq, a top commander in the war on terror said Friday.

"Is there likely to be an increase in hostile acts against the coalition? I think yes," Lt. Gen. Daniel K. McNeill told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview.

He spoke inside the U.S. command center for the war in Afghanistan -- a vast tent at Bagram Air Base filled with rows of soldiers at laptop computers and maps projected on a huge screen.

He said attacks are "likely to come from people who do not want to see this country continue to move down the road to its destiny," McNeill said.

"I think it's likely to come from people who are not citizens of this country," he added, an indication the U.S. military believes al-Qaida poses more of a threat than the Taliban or renegade Afghan rebel commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

U.S. and coalition forces helped oust Afghanistan's Taliban government last year and have stayed in the country to hunt down al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts. The transitional government of President Hamid Karzai has been struggling to help put Afghanistan back on its feet after more than two decades of war.

Recent attacks -- one in the heart of the Afghan capital -- seem to belie reports that the new government is making progress, at least with security.

On Thursday, a grenade assault just outside an international peacekeeping base in Kabul killed an Afghan attacker and two Afghan civilians. Two French citizens were wounded. A grenade attack Tuesday injured two U.S. special forces soldiers and their Afghan interpreter.

McNeill said neither attack signaled security was deteriorating.

"Is it becoming hotter? In my view, no. But indeed we always have to be on guard for acts like that," McNeill said, adding that serving in Afghanistan was "not a job without danger."

About 8,000 American troops are deployed across this mountainous nation, mostly along the eastern border with Pakistan. McNeill said the soldiers were in Afghanistan for the long haul, and he did not expect troop strength to be reduced if the United States goes to war with Iraq.

"I have a fairly powerful force on the ground and I expect to still have it regardless of whatever events occur . . . any other place in the world."

McNeill said U.S. forces were stepping up reconstruction efforts in the war-battered nation, but their first priority was to hunt down terrorists -- and that job was not over.

"We have not in my view captured or killed all the terrorists in Afghanistan," he said. "Some of them have gone underground so deep that it's difficult for me to put an absolute mark on them."

The United Nations said in a report Tuesday that volunteers were streaming into new "small, discreet and mobile" al-Qaida training camps reactivated recently near Asadabad in eastern Afghanistan.

McNeill did not dismiss the report, and said if it was "accurate to any degree, we will eventually bump into these elements. We're out there in good numbers, we're out there with freedom of maneuver, and we're moving all the time, looking for such elements."

McNeill also said a key American goal was to train the new Afghan national army, which is now only around 1,500-strong. Both Karzai and Washington eventually want the Afghan army to replace the militias of warlords who now dominate most of the country outside the capital.

Many of the Afghan troops are guarding the presidential palace. McNeill said a company of coalition-trained Afghan soldiers had been deployed in the eastern province of Paktika.

McNeill also said the U.S. military is preparing to expand its humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts -- something he said was lacking despite the over $1 billion in donor aid that has come into the country this year.

"The biggest thing we have not achieved is reconstruction on a scale on which we think the country desperately needs," he said. It's moving -- it's simply not moving fast enough to satisfy the people."

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