Pentagon plays down fears over Afghan violence

A123FF0521.jpgWASHINGTON (Reuters) – 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 George W. Bush visited the Pentagon to discuss Iraq and Afghanistan with top officials, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said decisions on more troops for Afghanistan may have to 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 secretary (Defense Secretary Robert Gates) believes that is the case,” Morrell said.

However, commanders in Afghanistan have asked for three additional combat brigades, or more than 10,000 soldiers, and Bush has agreed to send an undisclosed number next year.

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.

A U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it would be tough to get even one extra U.S. brigade to Afghanistan by the end of 2008.

“It would be challenging to get a brigade-level force there by the end of the year — just the logistics of it,” he said.

But it was possible one brigade, perhaps devoted to training Afghan forces, could get there next January, he said.

In the meantime, officials were looking to deploy smaller units in the coming months to support forces in Afghanistan, he said.

U.S. officials have made clear that any additional combat troops for Afghanistan would only be available after more U.S. forces withdraws from Iraq, where violence has declined.

“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.

The United States has some 35,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 16,000 under NATO command.

Both U.S. presidential candidates say they favor more combat troops for Afghanistan.

Democrat Barack Obama has said he would send at least two brigades. Republican John McCain has said commanders should get the three brigades they want but the Iraq war is his priority.

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