WASHINGTON — The U.S. and its allies should rush more troops "as quickly as possible" to Afghanistan, the top American commander in that country said Wednesday, warning that the fighting could worsen before it get better.
Trying to meet Gen. David McKiernan's urgent need for weapons and equipment, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked the military for additional surveillance drones and armored vehicles right now for Afghanistan, The Associated Press has learned. It is a short-term solution to a persistent shortfall of military assets in a seven-year war often overshadowed by the larger U.S.-led conflict in Iraq.
After an Oval Office briefing from McKiernan, President Bush said Afghanistan is "a situation where there's been progress and there are difficulties."
The U.S. is in a tough fight against determined killers, Bush said. He cited progress in health care, education and transportation, and said McKiernan relayed "what he's going to need to make sure that we continue helping this young democracy succeed."
McKiernan is in Washington this week meeting with top leaders and laying out his military requirements for a war that is just beginning to take on new prominence in the waning months of the Bush administration. U.S. troops are being killed there in increasing numbers.
A senior defense official said Gates asked aides to find both unmanned surveillance drones and mine-resistent vehicles to divert to Afghanistan in the coming months until a more coordinated effort early next year. One focus is protecting the strategic main highway.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the effort has not yet been made public, said the military is looking to nearly double the 24-hour aerial surveillance patrols, from 27 now to about 55.
A new Pentagon task force is supposed to speed weapons and equipment to Afghanistan beginning early next year.
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 this 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 2008. 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 both 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.
McKiernan's immediate challenge is to coordinate a winter offensive by coalition forces. Commanders do not want to sit idle and give Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents that time to rebuild their forces.
Military leaders insist the retooled strategy is critical because they made the mistake of giving the enemy that break last winter and do not want to repeat it.
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.
Violence in Afghanistan is up about 30 percent this year compared with 2007. The Taliban and associated militant groups such as al-Qaida have stepped up attacks. More U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan this year than in any year since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
"We're in a very tough fight," McKiernan said. "The idea that it might get worse before it gets better is certainly a possibility."
Gates said last week he may be able to send thousands more combat troops to Afghanistan starting next spring. McKiernan said he expects some of his more urgent needs for additional helicopters and surveillance capabilities will be met in the next few months.
The general pointed to a significant increase in foreign fighters coming from neighboring Pakistan this year _ Chechens, Uzbeks, Saudis and Europeans. He said he needs the 10,000-plus additional forces he has requested to help increase campaigns in the south and east where violence has escalated.
McKiernan told reporters he is encouraged by recent Pakistani military operations against insurgents waging cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, but said it is too soon to tell how effective they have been.
He also endorsed the recent suggestion by Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak to try to create a joint force of Afghan, Pakistani and U.S. forces to secure what is a porous, mountainous, ungoverned border region.
"I think in the future I would certainly support the idea of combined patrolling along that border," said McKiernan. If it's handled the right way, he said he believes the Pakistanis would go along with the plan.
"There are mutual border security concerns that both the Afghans and the Pakistanis have," he said. "So the more we can work together to approach those concerns, the better off we all are."
Associated Press writer Ben Feller contributed to this report.