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NATO beefs up forces along Afghan-Pakistan border
KABUL (Reuters) - NATO has reinforced troops along the Afghan border anticipating peace deals between Pakistan and the Taliban will allow the insurgents to launch more attacks into Afghanistan, NATO's commander in Afghanistan said.
Pakistan has begun thinning out troops in parts of its border region and freed Taliban prisoners to try to seal a peace with al Qaeda-linked militants active on both sides of the frontier.
"Our analysis of the previous peace deals ... is that when that dialogue is ongoing or when talks have been consummated in peace deals we see a spike in the untoward events that we experience on our side of the border," said General Dan McNeill, commander of NATO's 47,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
NATO says there has already been a sharp increase in militant attacks in eastern Afghanistan, the area closest to the parts of Pakistan where peace talks are underway. Mostly U.S. troops are responsible for helping Afghan forces patrol mountainous region.
"We are going to have a bit of a plus-up in the U.S. sector," McNeill told Reuters. "Because we expect more activity there, we attune some of our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance processes and systems to focus where we anticipate things."
ISAF, some 12,000 troops in a separate U.S.-led coalition force and more than 100,000 Afghan soldiers and police are fighting to contain a Taliban insurgency relaunched two years ago with a guerrilla campaign, backed by suicide and roadside bombs.
More than 6,000 people were killed in the violence last year, some 2,000 of them civilians, NGOs estimate.
The Taliban are made up of several loosely allied groups which make their own operational plans, but accept guidance from a shura, or council, led by the reclusive Mullah Mohammad Omar.
"I don't know that Mullah Omar is alive. I don't know if he's dead either," said McNeill. "But I do believe there is a shura and I do believe it is located outside Afghanistan. It might possibly be in one of several Pakistani cities."
AL QAEDA HELP
Several Taliban militants have been killed in recent weeks in a series of apparent airstrikes on safe-houses on Pakistan's side of the border. The Taliban and Pakistani officials have said U.S. unmanned aircraft carried out the attacks.
Asked whether his forces would carry out strikes against the Taliban inside Pakistan, McNeill said: "The NATO mandate goes only as far as the border, that's as far as I'll go."
Intelligence reports suggested there were fewer foreign fighters with the Taliban this year, he said, but there was evidence of al Qaeda money, weapons and training helping the insurgents, especially in the east.
"In a couple of locations in the U.S. sector we have engaged insurgents and post-engagement we have discovered on some of the dead ones better equipment and in the process of engaging them we have seen better tactics indicating a better level of training," McNeill said.
Afghan forces were also much improved, he said, and "barring any cataclysmic occurrence", should be ready to fully take over security in Afghanistan by 2011 if they continued to make progress at the present rate.
Still, the Taliban are not the biggest threat to security.
"It seems to me there are two big threats out there are neither are the insurgent," McNeill said.
"I don't think this country can continue on its present path and expect reasonable progress if it doesn't take on the scourge of illegal narcotics," he said. "Secondly I think that governance has to improve greatly; the government has to extend its reach and it has to eliminate corruption."
Afghanistan produces 93 percent of the world's opium, a drug processed into highly addictive heroin and exported to the West. The lucrative trade is one of the biggest factors making Afghanistan one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Both undermine public faith in the Afghan government and threaten to undo military efforts to defeat the insurgency.
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