The American commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan says the Taleban has increased its influence in some southern areas, but he predicts that as NATO increases its forces in the country during the next few months the situation will change. General Karl Eikenberry spoke to reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday.
General Eikenberry says as the weather improved this spring, Taleban elements showed their influence in some areas in the south, where NATO is to take over most military operations by July.
"In southern Afghanistan, there are several districts that are located in northern Kandahar Province, northern Helmand and Uruzgan [provinces], where it's fair to say the Taleban influence in certain areas is stronger than it was last year," he said.
General Eikenberry also says the Afghan insurgents have changed their methods, using tactics that have been successful for insurgents in Iraq, including roadside bombs and suicide attacks. Still, he expressed confidence that as NATO forces continue to arrive the international coalition and Afghan forces will be able to bring the situation under control.
"NATO, collectively, will have a much larger presence on the ground in southern Afghanistan than we do to date," he noted. "So, increase of violence in the south, the enemy has changed tactics, [but] I am confident over the course of the spring and the summer and the fall, with these transitions that are under way, that the situation will improve by the end of this year."
General Eikenberry says keys to stability in Afghanistan are not all military. He says the national government has worked hard to improve local governments throughout the country, build local services such as the electrical and water supplies and increase the availability of schools and clinics. He says a recent survey indicated that 80 percent of Afghans listed the economy as their number one concern, not security. And the general says a lot of the international effort in Afghanistan is focused on that, as well as fighting corruption and narcotics trafficking.
Still, security is the general's primary concern. He says even after NATO takes responsibility for all of the country, except the capital, late this year, U.S. forces will focus on fighting insurgents, training the new Afghan security forces and on what he called an "unrelenting and focused" hunt for Taleban and al-Qaida leaders. He says there has been "good progress" in disrupting the middle and upper ranks of the insurgent leadership, even though the top leaders have not yet been caught.
And General Eikenberry says he believes the NATO force, which will include a large U.S. contingent, will be fully capable of maintaining security and helping fight insurgents when necessary.
"They are already on the ground and they are proving themselves," he said. "The Canadians and the British, and I have absolute confidence in all the NATO forces that are coming in. They will be very capable forces. They have the correct rules of engagement to execute the mission. I have absolute confidence that they will prevail in the south and do well. And they're getting set and well-postured to take over the mission for all of Afghanistan."
General Eikenberry says it is important for the international community to be patient about progress in Afghanistan, and to maintain its commitment to help with the country's reconstruction, even beyond the $10 billion over five years that was pledged at a conference in London in January.