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U.S. says nearing key moment in eastern Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and NATO forces are close to achieving “irreversible momentum” in their battle with insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, a senior commander said on Wednesday.

The Taliban and other insurgent groups have been strongest in eastern and southern Afghanistan but U.S. Army Major General Michael Tucker said security had improved this year in the east, where U.S. forces lead NATO troops.

He said about 80 percent of insurgent activity now took place in southern Afghanistan, where the United States plans to deploy thousands of troops in the coming months to reinforce British, Canadian, Dutch and other NATO soldiers.

“We’re approaching what you could actually, cautiously term irreversible momentum in the east,” Tucker told reporters at the Pentagon by videolink from Afghanistan.

Tucker, deputy chief of staff for operations for NATO and U.S. forces, said the improvement was partly due to an influx of some 4,000 U.S. troops to the area earlier this year.

A pilot project creating a local community protection force has also begun in the east and economic development efforts are well established there, Tucker said.

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“We have a combination of the right amount of forces... now to cover the area,” he said.

Efforts by Pakistan to tackle militants on the other side of the border may also have helped reduce violence, he said.

In the south, Tucker reiterated the assessment of other senior U.S. officials that NATO and Afghan government forces were stuck in a stalemate with the insurgents.

“We just simply do not have enough forces to address the needs of the people down there,” he said.

“The enemy, obviously, is taking advantage of that posture that we’re certainly going to be addressing here very shortly.”

The United States plans to deploy some 25,000 more troops to Afghanistan by the end of the summer, most of them to the south, in an effort to curb insurgent violence at its highest levels since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001.

There are about 40,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now and around 32,000 troops from other nations, mainly NATO members.

A U.S. official said President Barack Obama would meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani at the White House on May 6 and 7 as he presses a new strategy to stabilize the region.

Obama last month announced a new strategy for Afghanistan with the aim of crushing al Qaeda and Taliban militants based there and operating from across the border in Pakistan.

Editing by David Storey