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NATO Afghanistan commander concerned about north and west

KABUL (Reuters) - NATO’s commander in Afghanistan voiced concern on Wednesday about growing instability in the west and north of the country, even as U.S. and allied forces crack down on insurgents in their southern heartland.

U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal spoke after the death toll for foreign troops in Afghanistan halfway through July reached 46 -- already equaling the highest for any month of the eight-year-old war.

The United States has poured more troops into Afghanistan and is seeking to drive the Taliban out of strongholds in the southern province of Helmand.

McChrystal said he could not predict how long casualties would remain at the current level.

“Until we hit the point where the insurgent fighters decide that they cannot force us out or cannot discourage us, then I think they’re likely to stay significant,” he said after meeting with Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

NATO’s current operations are heavily focused on eastern and southern Afghanistan, where the insurgent violence has been highest in recent years.

But McChrystal, who took command in mid-June with a brief to shake up a faltering allied war effort, said he had been alarmed by pockets of insurgent strength in other parts of the country.

“I am worried about the north and the west,” McChrystal told a small group of reporters traveling with Mullen.

“We have probably taken the north and west as givens, that their level of security was good,” said McChrystal, sitting on a terrace at his Kabul headquarters.

“What I have found since arrival, but (it) clearly predates me, is certain areas have pockets of insurgency that seem resilient enough that they are defying some pressure.”

He said more security forces, particularly Afghan troops and police, and more Afghan government support to win over the local population would be needed.

He cited the Kunduz region in northern Afghanistan and Baghdis and Farah in the west among areas causing concern.


Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered McChrystal to conduct a 60-day review of the war effort, due in mid-August. He said he had already concluded the Afghan army and police should grow beyond their current projected strength.

He had asked his staff to look at ways of getting the Afghan army to its current goal of 134,000 troops even before the target date of 2011.

President Barack Obama’s administration has declared Afghanistan its top military priority. U.S. troop strength in will more than double from 32,000 to 68,000 this year, along with 36,000 troops from other Western allies.

At the start of this month the new U.S. troops, along with an existing British-led contingent, launched simultaneous assaults, the biggest of the war.

Thousands have moved quickly into Taliban-held territory in Helmand province, the most violent part of Afghanistan and the insurgents’ opium-growing heartland.

McChrystal said the operations it would take time not just to force out Taliban fighters but also eradicate their shadow government structures. “The clearing phase is longer than most people probably realize,” he said.

While the U.S. Marines have encountered relatively little resistance, the British forces have faced much more fierce and deadly opposition. A senior U.S. military official said that was probably partly because British forces had been there longer.

“The Brits have been there and the enemy knows how they fight,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The Marines are very unpredictable.”

Editing by Philippa Fletcher