U.S. sees hard year in Afghanistan even with more troops

WASHINGTON Wed Feb 18, 2009 5:06pm EST

1 of 4. U.S. servicemen board a plane bound for Afghanistan at Manas Air Base near Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, February 13, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The American general running the war in Afghanistan on Wednesday predicted a tough year ahead despite the addition of 17,000 more U.S. troops to break a stalemate with Taliban insurgents in the south of the country.

Army General David McKiernan said the United States would need to be heavily committed for years to Afghanistan, where insurgent violence has increased to its highest levels since American-led forces ousted the Taliban from power in 2001.

McKiernan said he was delighted by President Barack Obama's decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan but cautioned that their mission would be hard.

"Even with these additional forces, I have to tell you that 2009 is going to be a tough year," McKiernan, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said at the Pentagon.

He said most of the additional troops would go to southern Afghanistan, the heartland of the insurgency where NATO forces are struggling to hold terrain against Taliban fighters.

The extra forces will add to a foreign military presence that already consists of some 38,000 U.S. troops and another 30,000 troops from other nations, mainly NATO allies.

"What this allows us to do is change the dynamics of the security situation, predominantly in southern Afghanistan, where we are, at best, stalemated," said McKiernan, who was visiting Washington for a conference.

McKiernan asked last year for a major increase in forces -- about 30,000 troops -- as the insurgency intensified.

He will have around two-thirds of those forces by the summer and decisions about further troop increases could be made later in the year, he said.

McKiernan has rejected comparisons between his planned buildup and the 2007 "surge" of U.S. forces in Iraq. While the surge was a short-term boost in combat power, McKiernan sees higher troop levels in Afghanistan for years to come.

"For the next three to four years, I think we're going to need to stay heavily committed... in a sustained manner in Afghanistan," he told reporters.

Under McKiernan's plans, troops should clear areas of insurgents and then hold onto the terrain to allow for the provision of essential services and economic development to build support among local people against insurgents.

Under plans announced by Obama on Tuesday, 8,000 Marines will go to Afghanistan in late spring and a further 4,000 soldiers will deploy in the summer. Another 5,000 support troops will also be deployed, the Pentagon said.

(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert, editing by Chris Wilson)

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