Wardak conceded there has been a marked increase in terrorist activity in recent months, but argued that this represents a shift in strategy. That shift, in turn, he said, has come in response to the growing prowess of the Afghan National Army (ANA).
"Recently, there has been a rise in violence. The enemy has lost the capability to [counter] our forces in the field, so they are more resorting to terror tactics and going against softer targets," he said. "As a result of that, it looks like there is deterioration in the security situation, [but] I would say it is too early to reach that conclusion."
Wardak also suggested that the epicenter of the insurgency is correspondingly shifting out of Afghanistan. He said the numerous suicide bombings that have hit the country in the past few months are new -- and alien -- to the country and its culture.
"The suicide bomber is a new phenomenon. We Afghans do not believe that committing suicide is a way to [fight]. [It is] such [a] cowardly action. Out of all suicide bombings which have taken place in Afghanistan, only one case has been confirmed it has been an Afghan. Of the rest, every, every individual one has been a foreigner."
Wardak said there is absolutely no local support for suicide bombers inside Afghanistan. He said that what is needed to counter suicide attacks is to improve the government's human intelligence capabilities and cooperation with local people in affected areas. Most important, he underscored, is to increase security on Afghanistan's borders, and "also some districts which neighbor our borders."
Wanted: More Border Cooperation
The latter formulation appears to be a reference to a war of words that has erupted between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart, Pervez Musharraf. Karzai has accused Pakistan of not doing enough to suppress the neo-Taliban insurgency within its own borders -- a charge that Pakistan denies. Karzai's visit to Pakistan last month appears to have produced no visible breakthroughs.
Wardak said today Afghanistan continues to look for better cooperation from Pakistan.
"We would like to have more cooperation on the borders and to have coordinated efforts to overcome the present problem. This has been agreed in the meeting [of the two countries' presidents]. And as far as the Afghan government is concerned, we have followed the same path and we will be continuing to extend our hand towards our Pakistani neighbors."
Wardak said the two countries were waging, "a common war," that threatens Pakistan's peace and security as much as it does Afghanistan's.
He praised the fast-improving capabilities of ANA, saying it had received nothing but praise from NATO and coalition forces. NATO and other international forces should stay in Afghanistan until the country can, he said, "stand on its own feet," but no longer.
"Once that is achieved I doubt that there will be [a] need for the deployment of large formations of international troops in Afghanistan," Wardak said. "But in the meantime we would like to have enduring relations with organizations like NATO, which will serve as a [deterrent] against conventional threats to our country. But that will not mean that they will have to have thousands of troops in Afghanistan, that [is rather for] the political commitment and a symbolic presence."
A Symbolic NATO Presence
Wardak echoed NATO officials in their recent observation that the alliance's presence is linked to the development of the ANA and other Afghan security forces. But the minister noted that the ANA is improving quickly and already taking over many tasks from western forces.
Wardak appeared to prefer a significantly shorter time scale for the withdrawal of NATO and coalition forces than western officials have suggested -- noting that under the terms of the 2001 Bonn Conference, the ANA will be fully operational within the next four or five years.
However, Wardak underlined that everything will depend on developments in Afghanistan's security situation, which, he noted, cannot be predicted
Wardak said Afghanistan is also seeking to join NATO's Partnership for Peace project, of which its Central Asian neighbors are members. He noted Afghanistan's situation does not differ markedly from that of its northern neighbors.
The minister said Afghanistan will contribute a brigade of ANA forces to match the expansion of the NATO-led ISAF stabilization force to the south of the country -- known as "Stage Three." ISAF forces will increase by 5000 to 6000 troops as a result.
Wardak said the ANA and other Afghan security structures have already destroyed "thousands of acres" of poppy fields in the southern Helmand province. He said the operation was launched in advance of the arrival of ISAF forces, as cultivation activities are seasonal.
Helmand Province Governor Comments
U.S. Marines operating in Helmand Province in 2002 (epa)
RULING A RESTIVE LAND: On February 12, RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Jawaid Wafa spoke briefly with Helmand Province Governor MOHAMMAD DAOUD about the ongoing violence in his restive region on the border with Pakistan.
RFE/RL: Recently, there have been many clashes and attacks by insurgents in Helmand Province. What in your view facilitates these attacks, especially in Helmand?
Mohammad Daoud: This province has a 160-kilometer border with Pakistan's Baluchistan Province. In reality, armed people, armed terrorists, from the other side of the border cross the border into Helmand. They carry out attacks and return back. It is a serious problem in Helmand that within our borders there is neither tribal good will, nor are there are special military or security measures to prevent enemies from crossing back and forth.
RFE/RL: The attacks and clashes have not only been between government forces and insurgents. There have been various clashes in different parts of Helmand between police and purported drug smugglers. How do you explain this?
Daoud: Drug smugglers also use the border for their own purposes. They have opened markets on the border and process opium there. This is a serious problem along our border. We are in touch with our authorities on this problem.
RFE/RL: There are government border police patrol your border. What is their role in preventing illegal crossings?
Daoud: Along this 160-kilometer border, there are car routes, walking routes. We have border police, but unfortunately, either because of their own problems or because of weak administration, they have not been able to stop the crossing.