Image: U.S. Army Gen. David McKiernan
Reed Saxon  /  AP
U.S. Army Gen. David McKiernan, commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force, says the opium trade is eating away at Afghanistan.
updated 4/6/2009 8:09:24 PM ET 2009-04-07T00:09:24

The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan said Monday it will be years before coalition forces can make a complete handoff to Afghan security forces, despite the arrival of thousands of new troops beginning this month and signs of diplomatic progress.

Army Gen. David McKiernan told newspaper executives gathered at The Associated Press annual meeting that militant havens across the border in Pakistan remain a challenge. And while he said that the Afghan army is now leading 60 percent of missions in Afghanistan, Afghan police lag in their ability to provide security.

Many of the 21,000 new troops arriving this month will be directed to the nation's southern region and will be trained to work as mentors to Afghan troops in addition to working in counterinsurgency operations.

"What we want to do is make a significant impact on the foundation of security ... and continue to move toward developing sufficient Afghan capacity and specifically, their army, their police, so at some point we can get to a tipping point where they lead the security in this country," he said.

"You're going to ask me when is that tipping point. I can't say, but I think it is a matter of years away," he said in a live satellite interview from Kabul.

Troops target drug operations
McKiernan also said his troops had increased targeting of drug operations eight- or 10-fold in the past four months, specifically for drug lords or operations that could be tied to insurgents and insurgent funding.

Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, the main ingredient in heroin. The Afghan drug trade accounts for 90 percent of worldwide production. The U.N. estimated last year that up to $500 million from the illegal drug trade flows to Taliban fighters and criminal groups.

"If there is a ... drug kingpin, but he's also connected to the Taliban and he's running weapons or IED (improvised explosive device) materials across the (Pakistan) border, I can make that nexus connection and ... we are doing that," he said.

McKiernan called heroin trafficking "a debilitating system across this country, that eats away at good governance, eats away at progress and it certainly provides a funding source for the insurgency."

The general stressed the need for coalition cooperation in Afghanistan in anti-drug and counterinsurgency efforts. He said he worried about the consequences of America shouldering too much of the burden.

"I am constantly maintaining the attitude that if nations, for a variety of reasons, are unwilling or unable to commit to military operations, commit in another way," he said.

McKiernan said that could include funding, police training and educational services.

He also made a rare — but brief — public reference to Iran when speaking about a "new sense of diplomacy" in the region. It was one of the first times McKiernan has mentioned Iran publicly in the context of regional diplomacy and comes after renewed efforts for diplomacy with Iran by the Obama administration.

"There's a new sense of regional diplomacy, which I think will produce effects as we look to the Afghan neighborhood: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Russia, perhaps even Iran," McKiernan said.

The general did not elaborate.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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