The top NATO general in Afghanistan on Sunday rejected the idea that NATO is losing the Afghanistan war to an increasingly bloody Taliban insurgency.
But U.S. Gen. David McKiernan also said he needs more military forces to tamp down the militants, and he depicted a chaotic Afghan countryside where insurgents hold more power than the Afghan government seven years after the U.S.-led invasion. He said better governance and economic progress were vital.
"It is true that in many places of this country we don't have an acceptable level of security. We don't have good governance. We don't have socio-economic progress. We don't have people that are able to grow their produce and get it to market. We don't have freedom of movement," he told a news conference in Kabul.
"We don't have progress as evenly or as fast as many of us would like, but we are not losing Afghanistan," he said.
Taliban militants launch surprise attack
In the country's wild south, meanwhile, Taliban militants launched a surprise attack on the provincial capital of Helmand, sparking a battle that killed about 60 insurgents, an Afghan official said.
Militants attacked the town of Lashkar Gah from three sides early Sunday and were pushed back only after a battle that involved NATO and Afghan troops and airstrikes, said Daud Ahmadi, the spokesman for the provincial governor. Rockets landed in different parts of the city but there were no civilian casualties, he said.
McKiernan said hundreds of insurgents gathered for the attack, and a NATO statement said its aircraft bombed insurgent positions, killing "multiple enemy forces."
"If the insurgents planned a spectacular attack prior to the winter, this was a spectacular failure," said Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, the spokesman for the NATO-led force.
In a second battle in Helmand, Afghan and international troops retook the Nad Ali district center — which had been held by militants — during a three-day fight, Ahmadi said. That battle, which also involved airstrikes, ended Saturday. About 40 militants were killed, he said.
Afghan police and soldiers were now in control of the district center.
Ahmadi's death tolls could not be verified independently. Journalists are not able to travel to remote and dangerous battle sites. Afghan officials have been known to exaggerate death tolls in the past.
Insurgency-related violence has killed more than 4,800 people — mostly militants — this year, according to an Associated Press count of figures from Western and Afghan officials. A record number of U.S. and NATO soldiers have died in 2008.
NATO needs to do more to engage tribal authorities
Back in Kabul, McKiernan said that NATO forces should do more to engage "traditional tribal authorities" to improve security and governance, but he said NATO would not bring back armed militias.
McKiernan's proposal could be a way to empower local leaders. The government of President Hamid Karzai is largely seen as ineffective outside Kabul and the capital cities of the country's 34 provinces.
Echoing calls that other U.S. and NATO leaders have made for months, McKiernan said he needs more military forces but also more helicopters, transport planes and civil affairs teams. He said country mandated restrictions that keep some NATO members out of the fight in Afghanistan are harmful to the mission. German and Italian forces are heavily restricted.
There are about 65,000 international troops in Afghanistan, including some 32,000 U.S. forces, all record numbers. McKiernan has requested another three to four brigades of American forces — between 10,000 and 15,000 troops — and it appears likely those forces will arrive sometime next year.
McKiernan said there is a connection between lowering the number of U.S. forces in Iraq and the Pentagon's ability to redirect troops to Afghanistan. McKiernan and his predecessor have long said that the NATO mission is short on troops.
The forces McKiernan said he would most like to see are Afghan soldiers and police, but until a "tipping point" is reached where Afghan forces have the numbers and skill to secure their own country, the international community needs to dedicate troops here, he said.
Asked about reports of recent peace overtures between the Afghan government and Taliban officials in Saudi Arabia, McKiernan said the NATO-led mission will support any initiative that will improve security, but that peace talks are an issue for the Afghan government alone.