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Afghanistan: U.S. Sees Increased Taliban Threat In 2007

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (file photo) (epa) January 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Recently appointed U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has warned NATO's Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer that the threat posed by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan may increase in 2007.

Gates and de Hoop Scheffer, who met today at NATO headquarters in Brussels, also discussed the NATO training mission in Iraq. After the meeting, the U.S. secretary of defense also explained recent moves by Washington to expand the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.

Gates and de Hoop Scheffer spent much of their meeting discussing the resurgent Taliban threat in Afghanistan, as the U.S. defense secretary confirmed to reporters.

"One of the subjects we have been talking about was the increased level of violence last year and some indications that the Taliban want to increase the level of violence in 2007."

"One of the subjects we have been talking about was the increased level of violence last year and some indications that the Taliban want to increase the level of violence in 2007," Gates said.

Gates said the International Stability and Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, spearheaded by NATO, is a model of the alliance's potential, adding that success in Afghanistan remains NATO's "top priority."

NATO Appeal

De Hoop Scheffer reiterated his call for broader international action in the country.

"We spent of course some time on Afghanistan where it first of all is important that NATO delivers, that NATO lives up to expectations, that it is important that we embark on a comprehensive strategy, and that means the involvement -- you know my mantra 'full involvement of the international community': first of all of NATO, but also of the Afghan government and the international community as a whole," de Hoop Scheffer said.

At their Riga summit in November 2006, NATO leaders urged the European Union in particular to step up its support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Gates, for his part, said an increased civilian response must complement the military operations in the country.

De Hoop Scheffer said he and Gates also broached the NATO training mission in Iraq in their talks this morning, adding he hopes the operation can be expanded soon.

"We also discussed Iraq and the NATO training mission in Iraq, which is running well," de Hoop Scheffer said. "I would hope that the training mission can be expanded in the near future, that is at least the wish of the Iraqi government."

NATO is involved in training, equipping, and providing technical assistance to Iraqi security forces, but not in combat operations.

Staunch Over Iran

At the press conference that followed his meeting with the NATO secretary-general, Gates also briefly explained the recent tougher U.S. stance toward Iran. He said the decision to send another aircraft carrier to the region, as well as other moves, stem from a long-standing U.S. policy which sees the area as "vital" to the long term interests of the United States.

"We are simply reaffirming that statement of the importance of the Gulf region to the United States, and our determination to be an ongoing, strong presence in that area for a long time into the future," Gates said.

Gates said that Iran is currently playing a "very negative" role in Iraq and in the wider region appearing to believe the United States has its hands full in Iraq.

However, Gates said the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is ready to meet her Iranian counterpart for direct talks as soon as Tehran puts a stop to its uranium enrichment program.

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