Allied forces are facing a tougher fight in Afghanistan than was expected and need an infusion of American troops "as quickly as possible," the top U.S. commander there said yesterday.
The warning by Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, served as a counterpoint to Bush administration plans to delay a significant shift in forces from Iraq to Afghanistan.
"We are in a tough counterinsurgency fight, we are in a higher level of violence this year than we were this time last year," McKiernan said, hours before a meeting with President Bush in Washington. "In the east and south we are seeing a greater amount of insecurity in certain areas. So I wouldn't say things are all on the right track."
The Pentagon and White House have launched a review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. McKiernan was in Washington to take part in review sessions.
After meeting with the general, Bush said McKiernan had offered a candid assessment but did not say whether the administration would move more quickly to send more troops to Afghanistan.
Bush acknowledged there had been "tough fighting" in Afghanistan, but he cited improvements in eduction, health care and roads.
"Obviously, this is a situation where there's been progress and there are difficulties," Bush said.
The administration has promised an additional combat brigade for Afghanistan by early next year. But three additional brigades that McKiernan has requested will not be available until later in 2009, after the U.S. withdraws more forces from Iraq.
McKiernan did not say whether he considers that fast enough but was blunt in his appraisal.
"We're in a very tough fight," McKiernan said. "The idea that it might get worse before it gets better is certainly a possibility."
On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced orders to deploy about 26,000 troops to Iraq beginning next summer, evidence of the struggle to shift troops and weapons. The deployments would allow the U.S. to keep troop levels largely steady in Iraq through much of next year.
Military leaders have made it clear they cannot shift more troops to Afghanistan until they can further cut force levels in Iraq.
Bush announced last month that the U.S. will pull about 8,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by February, with about half leaving before the end of this year. Pentagon officials say more reductions could be made by summer, possibly freeing up units to go to Afghanistan.
"The additional military capabilities that have been asked for are needed as quickly as possible," McKiernan said. He said he is hoping to get units that will be able to fight the insurgents and serve as trainers for the Afghan Army and police.
About 33,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan - 20,000 fighting insurgents and training the Afghan security forces, and 13,000 with the NATO-led coalition.
At the same time, defense officials are reviewing the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, working to draw a clearer picture for the next commander in chief of what needs to be done to stabilize the country, bolster international support and make the most of U.S. and allied military forces.
McKiernan's Washington visit came amid growing Pentagon concern over violence in Afghanistan. In addition to the overall level of violence, suicide attacks by militants have grown more lethal, one senior defense official said, discussing the assessments on condition of anonymity. The number of suicide attacks this year, 121 through late September, is up slightly from the same period last year, which saw 118 attacks. But the effectiveness is increased markedly, with a 126 percent increase in the number of noncombatants killed in those strikes.
McKiernan attributed the rise in violence in part to an influx of foreign fighters, including Chechens, Uzbeks, Arabs and Europeans. They are coming in across the porous Afghan-Pakistani border, he said.
McKiernan endorsed a proposal by Afghanistan's defense minister to create a joint force that could patrol the border with Pakistan. He said he hopes the Pakistan military endorses a version of the plan.
"I support the idea of combined patrolling along that border," he said. "It is a very powerful idea and I would like to pursue that."
McKiernan said many strategic decisions must be left to the Afghan government, including whether to pay tribes not to fight or to reconcile with top Taliban leaders. Afghan President Hamid Karzai reportedly made an overture this week to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who is believed to be in Pakistan.
Previously, U.S. commanders have considered top-level Taliban members "irreconcilable." But McKiernan said reconciliation decisions would be left to Afghanistan's officials. Pointing to the potential difficulty ahead, McKiernan shook off a question about an "exit strategy" for Afghanistan.
"I am not even looking at an exit strategy right now," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.