WASHINGTON — The United States and its allies should rush more troops "as quickly as possible" to Afghanistan, the top American commander in that country said Wednesday, warning that the fighting could worsen before it gets better.
Trying to meet Gen. David McKiernan's need for weapons and equipment, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked the military for additional surveillance drones and armored vehicles for Afghanistan. It is a short-term solution to a persistent shortfall of military assets in a seven-year war often overshadowed by the larger U.S.-led conflict in Iraq.
After an Oval Office briefing from McKiernan, President Bush said Afghanistan is "a situation where there's been progress and there are difficulties."
The United States is in a tough fight against determined killers, Bush said. But he cited progress in health care, education and transportation.
McKiernan is in Washington this week meeting with top leaders and laying out his military requirements for a war that is just beginning to take on new prominence in the waning months of the Bush administration. U.S. troops are being killed there in increasing numbers.
A senior defense official said Gates asked aides to find both surveillance drones and mine-resistant vehicles to divert to Afghanistan, pending a more coordinated effort early next year.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the effort has not yet been made public, said the military is looking to double the 24-hour aerial surveillance patrols, from 27 now to about 55.
A new Pentagon task force is supposed to speed weapons and equipment to Afghanistan beginning early next year.
Violence in Afghanistan is up about 30 percent this year compared with 2007. The Taliban and associated militant groups such as al-Qaida have stepped up attacks. More U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan this year than in any other year since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
About 33,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan — 20,000 fighting insurgents and training the Afghan security forces, and 13,000 with the NATO-led coalition.
McKiernan's immediate challenge is to coordinate a winter offensive by coalition forces. Commanders do not want to give Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents time to rebuild their forces.
He pointed to a significant increase in foreign fighters this year — Chechens, Uzbeks, Saudis and Europeans. He said he needs the 10,000-plus additional forces he has requested to help increase campaigns in the south and east, where violence has escalated.