Asia Crisis

US focuses new intelligence effort on Taliban

* High U.S. casualties could continue through 2010

* Fleet of U.S. drones to be expanded

WASHINGTON, July 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. military in Afghanistan is more closely integrating intelligence-gathering operations as part of its new drive against Taliban insurgents, a senior defense official said on Thursday.

Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Vickers told reporters data from unmanned drones and other aircraft, intercepted messages, ground troops and other sources were being consolidated into a unified effort for the first time.

Top U.S. military officials have credited a similar consolidated intelligence approach with helping to break the back of Sunni and Shi'ite insurgent groups in Iraq.

The initiative is key to the success of President Barack Obama's more aggressive strategy in Afghanistan, where July has already been the deadliest month on record for U.S. forces and months more of heavy fighting are predicted.

The United States will more than double its military presence in Afghanistan this year to 68,000 troops, from about 32,000 last December, to quell insurgent violence that has reached its highest levels since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

The first major offensive of the Obama strategy occurred this month when 4,000 U.S. Marines swept into former Taliban strongholds in the southern Helmand Province.

Political analysts say the counterinsurgency strategy could strain American public support for the war by generating high casualties into the 2010 congressional election campaign.

Vickers suggested it could take Western forces until mid-2011 to gain the upper hand.


"In the immediate term -- immediate term meaning the next year or so, one to two years, max -- the objective is really to reverse the momentum that the insurgency had been gaining," Vickers said at a breakfast for defense writers.

He said the U.S. offensive would be backed by expanded fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles including Predator drones capable of air strikes on important targets.

The military is also building a large fleet of hunter-killer Reaper drones capable of extended periods of high-altitude surveillance.

The Predator and the Reaper are both manufactured by the privately held General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

"We have a combination of manned and unmanned (aircraft) that are providing this unblinking eye," Vickers said.

Drones and other aircraft including C-12 patrol aircraft are being integrated with other parts of the operation that include signals intelligence, biometrics, analysis and expanded links with troops on the ground.

"All of those had to come together and they are starting this year," Vickers said.

Over the past year, Predators have been used by the CIA against al Qaeda and other militant groups in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which U.S. officials say militants have used to launch attacks across the border in eastern Afghanistan.

Vickers did not refer specifically to the drone attacks but said al Qaeda had suffered significant setbacks in the past 12 months including the elimination of leading members.

"It can be characterized as a pretty significant disruption to their ability to plan and operate," he said. (Editing by David Storey)