Rice: Taliban 'by no means defeated'

LONDON (CBS/AP) -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has given a frank assessment of the challenges still facing Afghanistan seven years after the U.S. invasion to oust the Taliban and defeat Islamic extremism in the crucial country.

Speaking to reporters on her way to London for a day of strategy talks with senior British officials, Rice acknowledged the Taliban "have by no means been defeated and they remain a challenge," reports CBS News State Department reporter Charles Wolfson.

Rice said she thought Afghanistan was "moving forward", but she said there were still serious challenges along the border with Pakistan - where many senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding out in the mountainous terrain - as well as concerns over Afghanistan's growing opium poppy production.

In talks Wednesday with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Rice will discuss NATO's continuing role in Afghanistan, reports Wolfson. The Bush administration has committed an additional 3,000 Marines to the fight the Taliban, and is asking its NATO allies to increase their troop commitments as well.

Rice called the ongoing discussions with other NATO members about sending additional troops "bumpy", adding, "there's a lot of maturing the alliance needs to do."

Another issue Rice was expected to bring up with Miliband and Brown is the "training and mentoring" of Afghan army troops and police, aimed at enabling the Afghans to deal with militants themselves and rely less on the international community for security assistance.

In addition to Afghanistan, Rice was expected to talk about Iraq, Kosovo and another round of sanctions against Iran, which the United Nations Security Council is now considering.

Rice said she will raise with Afghanistan's U.S.-backed president the case of an Afghan reporter sentenced to death for insulting Islam, a case that has not drawn the same wide U.S. outrage or administration intervention as one involving a Muslim condemned to death for converting to Christianity.

"This is a young democracy," Rice said Tuesday. "It won't surprise you that we are not supportive of everything that comes up through the judicial system in Afghanistan, and I do think that the Afghans understand that there are some international norms that need to be respected."

Rice said NATO allies were examining whether plans for the future size of Afghanistan's police and Army forces were sufficient to fight the continued threat from the Taliban and insurgent fighters.

The plight of violent, poor and strategically critical Afghanistan was expected to be the centerpiece of a gathering of NATO leaders later this year. In addition to perhaps expanding the planned size of Afghan forces, Rice (seen at left) said the alliance was considering ways to improve law enforcement to combat the lucrative opium poppy trade.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's spokesman said Tuesday he was concerned about the 23-year-old journalist's death sentence but he would not intervene until the courts have had their final say.

Sayed Parwez Kaambakhsh was sentenced to death on Jan. 22 by a three-judge panel in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif for distributing a report he printed off the Internet to journalism students. The article asked why under Islam men can have four wives but women cannot have multiple husbands.

The court found that the article humiliated Islam, the faith of the vast majority of people in deeply conservative Afghanistan. Members of a clerical council pushed for Kaambakhsh to be punished. He has appealed.

Rice had called Karzai in March 2006 to ask for a "favorable resolution" of the Christian convert case. The man was released a short time later. That case had attracted intense news coverage and caused an outcry in the United States and other nations that helped oust the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001 and provide aid and military support for Karzai. President Bush and others had insisted Afghanistan protect personal beliefs.

Rice did not expressly condemn the sentence imposed on the reporter or say when she would discuss it with Karzai.

Days after a retired U.S. general she has hired as a Mideast adviser called Afghanistan a state at risk of failure, Rice said Karzai's democratic government is not threatened by a resurgent Taliban.

"You're not looking at a traditional military force that I think is a strategic threat to the government, but it is certainly causing insecurity for the population and that is something that is going to have to be dealt with," Rice said.

An independent study co-chaired by retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Jones and former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering warned that the United States risks losing "the forgotten war." It pointed to deteriorating international support and the growing Taliban insurgency. Rice also has appointed Jones as U.S. overseer for security matters between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The Taliban launched more than 140 suicide missions last year, the most since the regime was ousted from power in late 2001 by the U.S.-led invasion that followed the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The refusal of some major European allies to send a significant number of troops to the southern front lines has opened a rift within NATO.

Troops from the United States, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands have borne the brunt of a resurgence of Taliban violence in the region, and Canada has threatened to pull out unless other allies do more of the hard work.

The U.S. contributes a third of NATO's 42,000-strong International Security Assistance Force mission, making it the largest participant, on top of the 12,000 to 13,000 American troops operating independently. The U.S. plans to send an extra 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan this spring, including 2,200 combat troops to help the NATO-led force in the south.

Britain has about 7,700 soldiers in Afghanistan, up from 3,600 in 2006.

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The Associated Press and CBS News contributed to this report.