Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pentagon plays down fears over Afghan violence

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon on Wednesday sought to play down the seriousness of growing violence in Afghanistan but declined to say the United States and NATO were winning their fight against Taliban insurgents.

On a day when President Bush visited the Pentagon to discuss Iraq and Afghanistan with top officials, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the question of additional forces for Afghanistan may be left to Bush's successor.

"It is a mixed picture in Afghanistan," Morrell told reporters, blaming a recent upswing in violence in the east of the country on a rise in the flow of foreign fighters from militant bases in Pakistan.

In one sign of the growing insurgency, militants killed nine U.S. soldiers in eastern Afghanistan earlier this month — the deadliest attack on U.S. troops in the country since 2005.

But Morrell cast media reports of Afghan violence as "overwriting" that gave the false impression that "the sky is falling."

"I don't think that the (defense) secretary (Robert Gates) believes that is the case," Morrell said.

His comments came amid signs of sustained improvement in Iraq, where lower levels of violence appeared to be holding despite the withdrawal this year of five U.S. combat brigades deployed last year as part of Bush's so-called surge strategy.

"That is the war which we have focused on. That is the war we are now winning," Morrell said.

But he declined to make the same positive assessment for Afghanistan.

"The only thing I have heard about a judgment about whether we are winning or losing in Afghanistan is that we are not losing there," Morrell said.

More combat troops
The intensifying insurgency in Afghanistan has prompted Pentagon officials to look for ways to send more U.S. forces to Afghanistan, where there are currently 35,000 troops including 16,000 under NATO command.

A senior Pentagon official told The Associated Press that top military leaders are expected soon to recommend to Gates which additional U.S. troops could be sent to Afghanistan over the next month or so.

The units are likely to be small and could include engineers, ordnance disposal troops and other support forces needed to shore up fighting needs and training of Afghan forces. Officials have not ruled out identifying a larger, brigade-sized unit before the end of the year that could either be shifted to Afghanistan from a planned deployment to Iraq or moved from some other location.

Commanders on the ground have asked for three additional combat brigades, or more than 10,000 soldiers, and Bush has agreed to send an undisclosed number next year.

But Morrell said the number of forces to be sent in 2009 would likely be determined by the administration that takes office when Bush leaves the White House in January.

"Whether it's the three additional brigades that the commanders want, I think, is a question frankly for the next administration," Morrell said.

Candidates favor troop shift
Both presidential candidates say they favor more combat troops for Afghanistan.