Richard Boucher, the U.S. undersecretary of state for South and Central Asia, told reporters on August 2 that the planning session at the Camp David retreat outside Washington will address how best to confront the resurgent Taliban, and may also include Iran's role in Afghanistan.
Boucher said the Taliban remains the most serious problem Afghanistan faces. But he stressed that the fundamentalist Muslim group is facing problems of its own.
Since the spring of 2006, the Taliban has been trying to make a comeback in Afghanistan, but this summer they've found it harder to point to much success. "They've been unable to take towns and territory," Boucher said. "They have been, in this year, unable to concentrate forces even to the extent they did last year, and to try to achieve military objectives."
Those failures have led the Taliban to adopt more drastic methods, Boucher said. "Unfortunately they have turned more and more to pure terror tactics: tactics of bombings, tactics of kidnappings, as we have seen," he said.
Those tactics aren't helping the Taliban's cause, and are in fact alienating the local population, Boucher said.
Signs of Progress
In the meantime, Boucher noted that Karzai's government has had the help of NATO forces and the political and economic backing of the United States to improve the lives of most Afghan citizens.
"We have to remember that in five years, we built roads and highways, brought down infant mortality rates, put 5 million kids in school," Boucher said. "Enormous strides have been made.... The legitimate economy has achieved very healthy growth rates, and Afghanistan is in a much better position now than it ever was before as a nation. In addition, the government of Afghanistan is in a much better position as a government."
Boucher said Karzai has very ably responded to the Taliban's capture of 23 South Koreans on July 19, two of whom have since been murdered.
Karzai was criticized earlier this year for releasing imprisoned militants in exchange for the Taliban's freeing an Italian hostage. In the current case, he has refused to give in to similar demands for the release of Taliban prisoners. Instead, Karzai has been working with South Korean officials in an effort to find a suitable meeting place for negotiations with the militants.
One reporter asked if Karzai might be embarrassed if the Taliban killed yet another of the hostages during his visit to Camp David. Boucher replied that the Afghan leader is not responsible for what he called "a reprehensible act of an outlaw group." The Afghan government, he said, is doing all it can to ensure the safe release of the hostages. "But the pressure needs to be on the Taliban," he added.
Boucher said there is a wide range of pressures that can be brought against the Taliban to release the South Koreans. He said they include ordinary Afghan citizens speaking out against the kidnapping, as well as stronger measures -- perhaps even military action.
Poppies And Iran
Boucher addressed another of Afghanistan's problems -- the continued cultivation of opium poppies, which is expected to remain robust this year. But Boucher stressed that the location of Afghanistan's poppy crops has changed in recent years, and is increasingly concentrated in areas with a strong insurgent presence.
"The tie between insecurity and poppy production is more and more clear," he said. "Where the government has established governing mechanisms and [has] been in control, in fact poppy production is going down." That means that the number of poppy-free provinces is expected to jump from six to at least 12, he said.
Boucher said Bush and Karzai are likely to discuss a number of issues affecting relations between Afghanistan and Iran.
Shortly after U.S.-led forces deposed the Taliban in 2001, Iran -- Afghanistan's western neighbor -- didn't meddle in Afghanistan's affairs. More recently, however, Iran has begun to interfere.
The U.S.-Afghan summit is expected to address questions about Iranian influence in Afghan politics, and signs that Iranian weapons have made their way into Afghanistan. Iran's expulsion of Afghan refugees is also likely to be on the agenda.
Boucher also said that the United States is investing around $10 billion in Afghan reconstruction, development, governance and security projects this year. Next year, however, that figure probably will be cut by more than half, to $4.7 billion.
That doesn't mean the Bush administration is less committed to Afghanistan, Boucher said. In the basic U.S. budget, he said, the amount for both years is roughly the same. He explained that the additional money for this year came from extraordinary "supplemental" spending that was added after the budget was passed.
A U.S. military vehicle damaged by insurgents near Kandahar (epa)
HOMEGROWN OR IMPORTED? As attacks against Afghan and international forces continue relentlessly, RFE/RL hosted a briefing to discuss the nature of the Afghan insurgency. The discussion featured Marvin Weinbaum, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and RFE/RL Afghanistan analyst Amin Tarzi.
LISTENListen to the entire briefing (about 83 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media