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US general says a weak government sets back Afghan effort

WASHINGTON -- Violence in southern Afghanistan has increased, as the United States has increased troop strength there from 20,000 to 23,000. But the leading US commander in the country, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, said the Taliban activity is attributable more to weak government institutions than to a surge in Taliban strength.

Eikenberry, the commander of US-led forces, told Pentagon reporters that he is not yet ready to make recommendations to reduce US troop levels.

A soldier from Millbury is killed in an Afghan crash. B4.

According to several authorities, those US troop levels have been increased since the beginning of the year.

Eikenberry said the influence of the Taliban is stronger than it was last year in the Kandahar, Helmand and Oruzgan provinces of southern and south-central Afghanistan.

He also said the number of Taliban fighters may have increased in the past few months.

At the same time, the number of suicide bombings has risen. Eikenberry said the solution may be more political than military.

The country, he said, needs a stronger government as well as improvements in the police forces.

In some southern districts, Eikenberry said, ''it's not necessarily the strong enemy, it's the very weak institutions of the state . . . in that weakness, you have Taliban influence able to move in there, and through coercion . . . assert that influence."

Speaking at the Pentagon, Eikenberry saw serious challenges.

These, he said, include battles against drug traffickers and criminals, as well as conflicts among various ethnic groups.

In northern Afghanistan yesterday, villagers clashed with police trying to eradicate poppy fields, leaving at least two farmers dead and nine police officers injured, an official said.

Separately, the Afghan Defense Ministry said that 11 militants had been killed.

Residents in Sari Pul province, about 150 miles northwest of Kabul, blocked their village road with large rocks when a police poppy eradication team approached Tuesday, said a deputy provincial police chief, Sayad Hussin Safawi.

When police tried to pass the roadblock, the townspeople started throwing rocks at them. Police opened fire, killing two townspeople, Safawi said. Nine police officers were injured in the clash.

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