KABUL, Afghanistan — KABUL, Afghanistan -- In his first visit to Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said terrorist attacks from across the border in Pakistan had significantly increased, fueling a growing rift between the two countries and concern that the Taliban has set up shop in the lawless border areas of Pakistan.
But Gates added that Pakistan was one of the strongest allies of the U.S. in the war on terrorism. He also said that if U.S. military commanders asked for more U.S. troops here, he would be strongly inclined to recommend an increase to the president.
"I believe that we must do what is necessary in order to sustain the success that we have already attained in Afghanistan," Gates told a news conference at the Afghan presidential palace last night. About 41,000 international troops are now in Afghanistan, including 21,000 from the United States.
Gates' visit comes at a crucial time in Afghanistan, which is struggling with a resurgent Taliban and increasing tensions with neighbor Pakistan. Military commanders have warned that the new year may be as bloody as last year, when about 4,000 people were killed, the most since the Taliban were driven out in late 2001.
Earlier yesterday, U.S. military officials told reporters traveling with Gates that cross-border incursions from Pakistan were the reason for more attacks on international forces in the border areas. They said the Taliban are taking advantage of a peace deal in September with the Pakistani government in the North Waziristan tribal area.
Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told the Associated Press that Taliban attacks had risen by 200 percent in December. A U.S. military intelligence officer was quoted as telling reporters that the number of attacks in the border area had jumped by 300 percent since the peace deal was signed.
There was good news yesterday for the U.S.-backed Afghan government: A potential suicide bomber was thwarted in Kabul, the Pakistan army announced it destroyed three al-Qaida compounds in the tribal areas, and an alleged spokesman for the Taliban was arrested in a border town.
But recently, most of the news has been less positive for the government. When Taliban fighters have been pushed out of one region, they have popped up somewhere else.
Since taking over as defense secretary from Donald H. Rumsfeld last month, Gates has expressed concern about the stability of Afghanistan and the rising violence in the country. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also recently indicated he may be open to increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, in addition to Iraq.
Afghan officials have repeatedly blamed Pakistan for not doing enough to stop the Taliban from forming bases in the tribal areas. Pakistani officials have blamed Afghanistan for not doing enough to protect its borders.
Last week, in one of the strongest U.S. public statements about Pakistan, National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte told a Senate committee that leaders of al-Qaida and the Taliban were finding shelter in Pakistan's border areas.
Gates was not that direct, but he admitted "the border area is a problem."
Yesterday, Pakistani officials announced they had destroyed suspected al-Qaida hideouts near the border. Ten people were killed, all militants, and three compounds were destroyed, officials said.
Critics of the Pakistani government have often claimed that the army only takes on terrorists when an important U.S. official is visiting the region.
As Gates met with officials in Kabul, evidence of the war in Afghanistan was everywhere, despite the fact that the winter has traditionally meant a break from fighting. Miles away from Gates, guards at a NATO base stopped a potential suicide bomber, a NATO spokeswoman said.
And in the relatively calm eastern province of Nangarhar, officials announced that they arrested one of the two purported spokesmen for the Taliban. An Afghan intelligence official said Mohammed Hanif, who claimed to speak for the insurgency in eastern and central Afghanistan, was arrested in the town of Torkham, the busiest border town between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his job, said Hanif, whose real name was Abdul Haq, was arrested Monday.
Hanif often passed along messages from Mullah Mohammed Omar, the reclusive Taliban leader, and communicated with journalists by e-mail, text messages, Yahoo instant messages, satellite phone and cellular phone.
Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.