More than six years after the United States invaded to establish a stable central regime in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul controls just 30 percent of the country, says the top U.S. intelligence official.
National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that the resurgent Taliban controls 10 percent to 11 percent of the country and Karzai's government controls 30 percent to 31 percent. The majority of Afghanistan's population and territory remains under local tribal control, he said.
Underscoring the problems facing the Karzai's government, a roadside bomb in Paktika province killed two Polish soldiers who are part of the NATO force in the country and opium worth $400 million was seized in the southern part of Afghanistan. That brought the number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan to 21 this year, according to an Associated Press tally.
In Helmand province, an ambush by militants of an opium poppy eradication force sparked clashes that killed 25 Taliban fighters and a policeman, a provincial police chief said Thursday. Four other militants died when a bomb went off.
Insurgents ambushed the drug eradication force Wednesday in Marja district of Helmand — the world's largest opium producing region — killing one police officer and wounding two, said Gen. Mohammad Hussein Andiwal, the provincial police chief.
Police attacked the militants afterward, killing 25 Taliban fighters, Andiwal said.
Separately, four militants died and another was wounded Thursday when the roadside bomb they were planting on a main road in Helmand province exploded prematurely, Andiwal said.
Also Thursday, an American aid worker and her Afghan driver kidnapped in the country's dangerous south one month ago were feared dead, according to the group she worked for.
Aid worker Cyd Mizell and driver Abdul Hadi were taken hostage by an unknown group in a residential neighborhood of Kandahar on Jan. 26. Mizell worked on aid projects for the Asian Rural Life Development Foundation, or ARLDF.
"Although we have no confirmation of their deaths, we have received information over the past few days indicating that our two aid workers have been killed," said a statement posted on the group's Web site Tuesday.
An official with ALRDF in Kandahar said the group had received reports in recent days from "two credible Afghan sources" that Mizell and Hadi were dead. He said officials were working with the Red Cross to try to recover the bodies. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
In 2007, violence associated with the Afghan insurgency killed more than 6,500 people, including 222 foreign troops. Last year was the deadliest yet since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Officials estimate that up to 40 percent of proceeds from Afghanistan's drug trade, an amount worth tens of millions of dollars, is used to fund the insurgency.
Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, the Defense Intelligence Agency director, who testified before the Senate committee next to McConnell, said the Pakistan government is trying to crack down on its lawless tribal area along the Afghan border area where Taliban militias and al Qaeda fighters are believed to be training, and from which they launch attacks into Afghanistan. But neither the Pakistani military nor the tribal Frontier Corps is trained or equipped to fight, he said.
Maples said it would take three to five years to take care of those deficiencies and see a difference in their ability to fight effectively in the tribal areas.
"Pakistani military operations in the (region) have not fundamentally damaged al Qaeda's position. ... The tribal areas remain largely ungovernable and, as such, they will continue to provide vital sanctuary to al Qaeda, the Taliban and regional extremism more broadly," Maples said.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, said on Wednesday that Afghan journalist Jawed Ahmad, 22, had been declared an enemy combatant.
Ahmad has been held for four months without charge at a U.S. military detention center at Bagram, 30 miles north of Kabul.
Army Maj. Chris Belcher, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said a review board had determined Ahmad to be a danger to troops and the government. Ahmad "was in no way targeted because of his work as a journalist," he said.
"His case went before an enemy combatant review board. He was afforded an opportunity to provide a statement to the board, and the board determined there was credible information to detain him as an unlawful enemy combatant," Belcher said. He did not say when the review took place or if Ahmad was represented by counsel.
Belcher declined to provide details about the "credible information" and would not say if Ahmad had any more contact with militants than other journalists working in Afghanistan. It is common for journalists in the country to have the contact information of Taliban fighters so they can seek the militants' comments for news stories.
Ahmad, who is also known as Jojo Yazemi, was detained Oct. 26 at a NATO air base in the southern city of Kandahar, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based rights group. The group said it was "alarmed" by what it called a recurring practice of journalists being held for long periods by the military without due process.