WASHINGTON — 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 Wednesday.
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."
McKiernan was in Washington to take part in a review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan by the Pentagon and White House.
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 additional troops to Afghanistan. Bush acknowledged there had been "tough fighting" there but cited improvements in eduction, healthcare 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 soon 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."
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 on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on the matter. 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 death toll has grown markedly, with a 126% increase in the number of noncombatants killed.
McKiernan attributed the rise in violence in part to an influx of foreign fighters, including Chechens, Uzbeks, Arabs and Europeans. They are coming in through 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. "It is a very powerful idea, and I would like to pursue that," said the general, who hopes the Pakistan military endorses a version of the plan.
McKiernan said many strategic decisions must be left to the Afghan government, including whether to pay tribes not to fight or to reconcile with 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 as "irreconcilable."
Pointing to the potential difficulty ahead, McKiernan shook off a question about an "exit strategy."
"I am not even looking at an exit strategy right now," he said.