WASHINGTON Violence in Afghanistan will rise this year from the record levels seen in 2010, the top U.S. military officer said on Wednesday.
The prediction by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signals an escalation in the nearly decade-old conflict even as the United States prepares to start withdrawing troops in July.
"We expect the violence coming in 2011 to be greater than last year," Mullen said in a statement submitted to the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, without saying whether this implied a rise in U.S. military casualties.
"The fighting will be tough and often costly, but it is necessary to sustain and even increase the pressure we have been placing on the insurgent groups."
President Barack Obama ordered a "surge" of 30,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2009, with a goal of reversing the momentum of Taliban militants to allow for the withdrawal of U.S. forces to start this July.
Violence in Afghanistan has risen since the surge as the larger U.S. force expands the fight against the Taliban. Civilian and military casualties hit record levels last year and more than 2,300 foreign soldiers have been killed since the war began in 2001.
Nearly 500 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan last year alone.
U.S. officials have declined to specify the pace or scale of the drawdown, saying it will depend on conditions on the ground.
But the United States hopes to transfer lead security control to Afghan forces by the end of 2014 and, under pressure to reduce defense spending, reduce the overall size of the U.S. Army and Marines starting in 2015.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking of the plans to cut the Army and Marine numbers, told the committee: "I think you will know as early as the end of 2012, beginning of 2013, whether that is going to happen, which allows plenty of time to alter these decisions."
Mullen, in his statement, cited progress on the battlefield but warned that advances against Taliban insurgents were being undermined by a lack of governance and reconstruction.
"Despite a dramatic increase in our civilian presence in Afghanistan this past year, improvements in sub-national governance and reconstruction have not kept pace with progress in improving security," Mullen said. "This has impeded our ability to hold, build and transfer."
Congress, seized by fears about a ballooning national debt, will examine cutting overall civilian assistance and training for Afghanistan that has already cost the United States some $56 billion.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan and Jackie Frank)