QALAT, Afghanistan U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Monday that the Afghan guerrilla war can never be won militarily and called for efforts to bring the Taliban and their supporters into the Afghan government.
The Tennessee Republican said he had learned from briefings that Taliban fighters were too numerous and had too much popular support to be defeated by military means.
â€œYou need to bring them into a more transparent type of government,â€ Frist said during a brief visit to a U.S. and Romanian military base in the southern Taliban stronghold of Qalat. â€œAnd if thatâ€™s accomplished weâ€™ll be successful.â€
Frist said asking the Taliban to join the government was a decision to be made by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican from Florida accompanying Frist, said negotiating with the Taliban was not â€œout of the questionâ€ but that fighters who refused to join the political process would have to be defeated.
â€œA political solution is how itâ€™s all going to be solved,â€ he said.
In violence on Monday, a suicide bomber blew himself up next to a NATO convoy in the capital Kabul, wounding three soldiers and three civilians, while a roadside bomb in the eastern Paktia province killed three Afghan soldiers and wounded three others, officials said.
Afghanistan is being rocked by the worst outbreak of violence since the ouster of the Taliban regime in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Militants have increasingly resorted to suicide attacks and roadside bombs.
Frist, who said he would announce whether he would run for the U.S. presidency in about a month, said he had hoped that the United States would be able to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan soon. But the 20,000 U.S. troops are still needed to help the 37-country coalition deal with an intensifying Taliban insurgency.
â€œWeâ€™re going to need to stay here a long time,â€ Frist said.
The senator said he had been warned to expect attacks in Afghanistan to increase. There appears to be an â€œunlimited flowâ€ of Afghans and foreigners, he said, â€œwilling to pick up arms and integrate themselves with the Taliban.â€
He said the only way to win in places like Qalat is to â€œassimilate people who call themselves Taliban into a larger, more representative government.â€
â€œApproaching counterinsurgency by winning hearts and minds will ultimately be the answer,â€ Frist said. â€œMilitary versus insurgency one-to-one doesnâ€™t sound like it can be won. It sounds to me … that the Taliban is everywhere.â€
Frist and Martinez flew to this dust-blown mountain city 350 kilometers (220 miles) south of Kabul during a one-day stop in Afghanistan on a regional tour that includes stops in Pakistan and Iraq.
The pair had intended to visit a new US$6.5 million (â‚¬5.1 million) hospital in Qalat built by the United Arab Emirates, but a group of wounded Taliban fighters were recuperating there, including a midlevel commander, and U.S. commander Lt. Col. Kevin McGlaughlin canceled the visit because of security concerns.
The senators saw firsthand the legendary hostility to outsiders of tribal southern Afghanistan. As Fristâ€™s helicopter landed, children just outside the base threw stones. And the senatorâ€™s first act on Forward Operating Base Lagman was to pin a purple heart on the baseâ€™s medic, Capt. Jacqueline King of Tinton Falls, New Jersey, who had been badly burned in a June suicide bombing.
â€œItâ€™s rough,â€ King, 42, told reporters and members of Fristâ€™s staff. â€œTheyâ€™re not exactly thrilled to see us here.â€
Soldiers based in Qalat have been hit by more than 100 roadside bombs since arriving in April, said Air Force Capt. Kevin Tuttle.
The troops here monitor the headquarters for a provincial reconstruction team that has been repairing roads, mentoring doctors at the new hospital and operating a trade school that teaches nursing, welding, auto repair and plumbing.
Frist also chatted with fellow Tennessee surgeon Lt. Col. Steve Jarrard, 46, of Johnson City, in the base hospital.
â€œI really hope weâ€™re doing the right thing over here,â€ Jarrard said, the late afternoon sun burnishing the neighboring mountain peaks. â€œItâ€™s too expensive. Iâ€™ve seen too many guys on the operating table. I try to bring them through and Iâ€™m not always successful.â€
Three NATO-led troops received minor injuries in the suicide bombing in Kabul. Maj. Luke Knittig, a military spokesman, said he could not disclose the nationalities of the soldiers. The attack came two days after another suicide bomber killed 12 people and wounded more than 40 outside Afghanistanâ€™s Interior Ministry.
In the southern province of Helmand, clashes on Sunday left 10 people dead, including five civilians, said Ghulam Muhiddin, the governorâ€™s spokesman.
The civilians were killed when their vehicle hit a freshly planted mine on a road usually used by NATO and Afghan security forces in Helmandâ€™s Musa Qala district, Muhiddin said.
Suspected Taliban on a motorbike, meanwhile, killed two policemen in Gereshk district, he said. Separately, NATO-led troops killed three militants in Nawzad district.