WASHINGTON – Amid signs that the Taliban insurgency is regaining strength, President Bush on Friday defended his efforts to stabilize war-savaged Afghanistan and blasted critics who charge that his policies there are failing.

Afghanistan is reeling from its worst bloodshed since the 2001 U.S.-led intervention as the Taliban and allied warlords tie down 42,000 American and NATO-led troops and President Hamid Karzai struggles with colossal corruption, record opium production and nose-diving popularity.

In his most extensive remarks on Afghanistan recently, Bush sought to accentuate the positive, praising Karzai’s democratic government, hailing the training of the Afghan National Army and noting the multinational contributions to the anti-Taliban fight.

“The liberation of Afghanistan was a great achievement,” Bush told the Reserve Officers Association, which represents the interests of military reservists in Washington.

The president acknowledged setbacks, such as faltering police reform.

But he made no mention of the key reasons for the Taliban’s resurgence: the diversion of U.S. troops to Iraq; America’s failure to make good on a promise of a reconstruction program akin to the rebuilding of post-World War II Europe; endemic corruption; and the support the Taliban receive from Pakistan. Bush instead praised Pakistan as a strong ally in fighting terrorism.

Several of the president’s statements about Afghanistan’s judicial and legal reforms were misleading:

• He praised Karzai for naming new Supreme Court judges. But he failed to mention that the Afghan parliament rejected Karzai’s nominee for chief justice, a conservative cleric blamed for stalling reform, who favored Islamic laws mandating that adulterers be stoned to death and thieves have their hands amputated.

• He praised Italy for helping to train Afghan judges and prosecutors. Many Western officials and experts say the effort is seriously flawed and that Afghanistan’s legal system is in a state of collapse.

• He said the Afghan National Police “have faced problems with corruption and substandard leadership.” He contended that Karzai’s government began tackling the problem after appointing a new leadership team this summer. But he didn’t mention that Karzai named to his team 14 senior police generals whom U.S., European and U.N. officials opposed because of their alleged involvement in human-rights abuses and corruption.

Bush’s comments were the latest in a series of talks that he’s been making to counter Democratic charges that his policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have fanned violent Islamic extremism.

He praised the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force for beating back a major Taliban offensive earlier this month near Afghanistan’s southern city of Kandahar and said multinational reconstruction teams were helping to restore electricity, build roads and improve water, irrigation and sanitation.

He noted that the United States has approved more than $4.5 billion in reconstruction money.

“The critics warned that we were heading towards a “quagmire,’ ” the president said. “And then the Taliban fell, and operations began in Iraq, the critics held up the multinational coalition in Afghanistan as a model and said it showed that everything in Iraq was wrong. And now some of the critics who praised the multinational coalition we built in Afghanistan claim that the country is in danger of failing because we don’t have enough American troops there.”

More than a dozen current and former U.S., European and Afghan officials and commanders agreed in recent interviews that there aren’t enough foreign forces to provide the security required to rebuild one of the most devastated nations on Earth.

There are 5,000 American combat troops for the 27,000 square miles of eastern Afghanistan and only 8,000 NATO soldiers in the Taliban’s vast southern heartland.

More foreign and Afghan soldiers and civilians have died this year than in any year since 2001, and suicide bombings have risen from two in 2002 to about one every five days. Karzai has called for a change in U.S. tactics because of the rising civilian casualties, a major factor behind the plunge in his popularity.

The problems with the American-led police reform program, a key part of Bush’s exit strategy, go beyond those that the president outlined.

For instance, he put the size of the force at 45,000 officers.

But police Gen. Gullam Jan, who’s in charge of police recruiting, and three U.S. officials involved in the program told McClatchy Newspapers earlier this month that no one knows how many officers are on the force.

Jan and the American officials, who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly, described the reform effort as paralyzed by immense corruption, nepotism, desertions, low pay, incompetence, massive pilfering of equipment and Taliban infiltration.

Bush praised Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf for making a “courageous choice” to end his country’s support for the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and to back the war on terrorism.

Bush noted that despite attempts on the Pakistani president’s life, Musharraf has helped capture senior al-Qaida operatives whose information foiled terrorist plots and “saved American lives.”

But Musharraf hasn’t ordered the arrests of any of the Taliban leaders who fled to Pakistan in 2001 and who senior Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials say are directing the insurgency in Afghanistan from the Pakistani city of Quetta.

The United States has strong evidence that Pakistani intelligence officers are providing arms, training, money and protection to the Taliban as part of a long-held goal of installing a pro-Pakistan regime in Afghanistan’s capital, according to U.S. officials and experts.

The insurgency will continue as long as the Taliban are given refuge in Pakistan, they warn.

Bush hosted Karzai and Musharraf at a White House dinner Wednesday in an effort to persuade them to put aside their differences and cooperate more closely.

In his speech Friday, Bush noted that Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 military coup, plans to hold presidential elections next year.

Musharraf is expected to run, but he’s refused say whether he’ll relinquish the post of army chief of staff beforehand.

For an on-scene McClatchy report on conditions in Afghanistan, go to www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/world/12426823.htm

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