updated 4/3/2006 10:40:55 AM ET 2006-04-03T14:40:55

Violence is likely to increase in Afghanistan this year as foreign security forces expand into new areas and the government steps up its campaign against a booming trade in opium and heroin, a senior U.S. official warned Monday.

Already last year was the deadliest in rebel violence since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001. Some 1,600 people, including 91 U.S. troops, were killed last year, more than double the total in 2004.

Recent weeks have seen a rise in attacks — often around four a day — as warmer spring weather melts snow on high mountain passes Taliban rebels use.

Richard A. Boucher, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said the rebels “certainly have the ability to continue doing what they are doing for a while and be very nasty.”

“We will probably see a rise in violence this year as NATO spreads into areas in a more dense fashion, as the insurgents try to test the new forces (and) as the government takes on the narcotics traffickers in new areas,” he said.

NATO is gradually assuming control of security in Afghanistan from a U.S.-led coalition. By midyear, NATO troops are set to take over volatile southern regions and by September they are expected to control the entire country.

The United States will keep about 16,000 soldiers here, down from their current levels of about 19,000, but they will be under NATO command. The British, the Dutch and the Canadians have deployed thousands of soldiers in recent months.

U.S. to stay 'for a long time to come'
Many Afghans believe the U.S. drawdown indicates the start of a gradual withdrawal, but Boucher suggested otherwise.

“We are here. We are going to stay here. People are going to see us here for a long time to come,” he said.

Over the weekend, a Turkish road engineer, nine police and a prominent lawmaker were killed. A botched suicide bombing killed the assailant, but no one else, and five U.S. troops were wounded in a roadside blast.

U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann, speaking alongside Boucher, said the Taliban have the impression that with time, they will gradually wear out the patience of foreign governments to keep their troops deployed here.

“There was a Taliban leader who said to one of our folk that the coalition has all the clocks, but we have all the time,” Neumann said. “That is the way they tend to see the world, that they can out-wait the foreigners.”

The insurgents are believed to be heavily armed and well funded, partially from profits derived from the booming drug trade. Afghanistan supplies nearly 90 percent of the world’s opium and heroin.

The government, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. and British money, has begun a campaign to forcibly eradicate poppies in many areas — a move that is believed to have caused fighting in some areas.

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