NATO's top commander in Afghanistan says the country is at a tipping point and Afghans are likely to switch their allegiance to resurgent Taliban militants if there are no visible improvements in people's lives in the next six months.
General David Richards warned in an interview that if life doesn't get better over the winter, most Afghans could switch sides.
"They will say, `We do not want the Taliban but then we would rather have that austere and unpleasant life that that might involve than another five years of fighting,'" Richards said on Sunday.
Afghanistan is going through its worst bout of violence since a US-led invasion removed the former Taliban regime from power five years ago. The Taliban has made a comeback in the south and east of the country and is seriously threatening Western attempts to stabilize the country after almost three decades of war.
"If we collectively ... do not exploit this winter to start achieving concrete and visible improvement," then some 70 percent of Afghans could switch sides, Richards said.
The British general said he'd like to have approximately 2,500 additional troops to form a reserve battalion to help speed up reconstruction and development efforts.
The south of the country, where NATO troops have fought their most intense battles this year, has been "broadly stabilized," Richards said.
"We have created an opportunity" following intense fighting that left over 500 militants dead in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, he said.
"If we do not take advantage of this, then you can pour an additional 10,000 troops next year and we would not succeed because we would have lost by then the consent of the people," Richards added.
Meanwhile, approximately 25 Taliban fighters were killed in two separate clashes in southern Afghanistan while the rebels abducted two Pakistani laborers, police said yesterday.
At least 20 rebels were killed by foreign and Afghan troops in a clash in the southern province of Uruzgan on Sunday, the provincial police chief said.
"They came in contact with the enemy, sparking a clash in which at least 20 Taliban were killed and one policeman was wounded," General Mohammad Qasim said.
The clash was in the province's volatile Char Chino district, which has seen a lot of fighting.
A Taliban spokesman, Yousuf Ahmadi, confirmed the fight but said only five of the movement's fighters were killed and three wounded.