ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan said on Thursday the security situation there remained serious but was not deteriorating, giving a more upbeat view than from other U.S. military and intelligence officials.
Speaking before a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Istanbul, General Stanley McChrystal also expressed confidence that Afghan forces would grow quickly enough to allow a reduction in U.S. troop numbers to begin on schedule in 2011.
U.S. officials said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates would urge NATO allies at the meeting on Thursday and Friday to send up to 4,000 more trainers and mentors to prepare the Afghan army and police to begin taking over security next year.
Dire warnings from McChrystal and other commanders last summer about the worsening outlook in Afghanistan prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to order the deployment of 30,000 additional troops to battle a resurgent Taliban.
But on Thursday the general offered an assessment that appeared at odds with warnings by other top U.S. officials that the insurgency was growing more lethal and spreading its reach.
“I believe the situation in Afghanistan is serious,” McChrystal told reporters.
“I do not say now that I think it’s deteriorating. I think and I said that last summer, and I believed that that was correct. I feel differently now.”
“I‘m not prepared to say we have turned the corner,” he added. “But ... I think we have made significant progress in setting conditions in 2009 and ... we’ll make real progress in 2010.”
Earlier this week Dennis Blair, U.S. director of national intelligence, told lawmakers the Taliban insurgency “has become increasingly dangerous and destabilizing.”
The director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, warned U.S. troops faced an “increasingly capable insurgency.”
And Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that Taliban insurgents have “a growing influence in most of Afghanistan’s provinces.”
McChrystal said he had not seen Mullen’s testimony.
“What I will tell you is I think that the Taliban are making a significant effort to expand their influence. So is the government of Afghanistan now, aided by us,” he said.
He attributed his more upbeat view to factors including better cooperation between NATO and Afghan forces and impressions from meetings with local leaders.
“What I see and what I feel gives me that sense,” he said. “This is all a war of perceptions. This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture ... This is all in the minds of the participants.”
A shortage of trainers and mentors could skew the timetable for starting to hand over responsibility to Afghan forces to allow for a gradual reduction of U.S. and allies troops.
A senior U.S. official estimated 1,500 to 1,700 instructors or trainers and 2,500 so-called mentors were still needed to help grow Afghan forces to a 2011 target of 300,000 personnel.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates would appeal to NATO defense ministers to “contribute their forces to this cause in as timely a manner as possible, just as we are.”
The official acknowledged that police training in Afghanistan had been a “haphazard effort.” But he said a new structure was in place ensure it would more successful.
The effort has struggled to meet targets for international personnel, mainly due to safety concerns. The European Union launched a police training mission in 2007, which has a target strength of 400 personnel, but fewer than 300 have been deployed.
So far, 4,500 of the 30,000 additional U.S. troops ordered by Obama have arrived, to join the nearly 70,000 there before the surge began in December. The Pentagon said levels were expected to reach 98,000 by the end of September.
Other NATO member-states and allies have about 45,000 troops in Afghanistan and have promised to send up to 9,000 more.
Pentagon officials said U.S. pledges to help allies protect against a surge in roadside bombings had been a factor in winning the promises to send more soldiers and held out the possibility of equipment such as specialized armored vehicles.
McChrystal touted an imminent offensive on a Taliban enclave at Marjah, in southern Afghanistan by thousands of Marines as the “next step” in the counterinsurgency campaign.
He said the operation would start “relatively soon” and show Afghans “we are expanding security” and the Taliban that the partnership between U.S., NATO and Afghan forces was maturing.
Writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Michael Roddy