Mon, Jan 01, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Outgoing US commander expects even more fighting in Afghanistan this year

TALIBAN ATTACKS The violence rose sharply last year, with an estimated 4,000 people killed, making it the deadliest year since the Taliban were swept from power

AP , CAMP SHARONA, AFGHANISTAN

The outgoing US commander in Afghanistan said that he expects higher levels of fighting in the coming year, and that Taliban militants will try to briefly overrun district centers to unhinge Afghans' morale.

Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry also said the recent killing of a high-level Taliban commander shows that fugitives like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar will one day slip up, and that the US will strike.

Eikenberry, expected to be out of Afghanistan later this month, said he expects militants early this year to attack border security posts, to extend their use of suicide bombs and to launch assaults on district centers in groups of 25 to 100 fighters.

But Eikenberry said none of the Taliban's efforts would provide "a significant military challenge" for US, NATO and Afghan forces, which he said have improved greatly in the past year.

"The capability exists for that array of allied and Afghan forces to dominate militarily wherever they move to," he said.

Eikenberry said that as he looks ahead to the first half of this year, "I anticipate higher levels of fighting."

When asked if that was in comparison to last year, he said: "We should not be surprised by levels of fighting in parts of southern Afghanistan that rivaled what we saw last year."

Violence rose sharply in Afghanistan last year, killing an estimated 4,000 people, making it the deadliest year since the US-led coalition swept the Taliban from power in 2001.

Militants launched a record 117 suicide attacks last year, about a six-fold increase over the year before, killing 206 Afghan civilians, 54 Afghan security personnel and 18 soldiers from NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said NATO spokesman Major Dominic Whyte.

The number of US troops killed in Afghanistan dropped slightly, from 93 in 2005 to 87 last year. But the number of casualties suffered by other NATO countries rose sharply.

Eikenberry on Friday traveled to three US bases in eastern Afghanistan's rugged mountains to talk with commanders and shake hands with soldiers who must fend off attacks by Taliban militants crossing the border from Pakistan.

Using an American football analogy, he told soldiers who had lined up in formation to greet their top commander that the US was tackled inside its own end zone on Sept. 11, 2001.

"We got the ball back on our own goal line -- our mission: to go 100 yards [meters] and score a touchdown," he said, using the term for a goal in the sport.

"You don't have enough time to get us a touchdown, but you can get us another first time. Are we on the 30 yard line? The 40? I can't say, but you are making progress," he said.

Eikenberry said an "extraordinary amount of resources" are being used to hunt down al-Qaeda leader bin Laden and Taliban leader Omar.

He said the killing in a US airstrike on Dec. 19 of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, regarded as one of Omar's three top associates, shows the US is ready to strike.

"With that intensive effort that is out there, eventually opportunities will occur, and when those opportunities present themselves, as we demonstrated with Osmani, we're ready to strike," he said.

"One day they slip, one day they make a mistake, and we'll be there ready to strike," he added.

Eikenberry is expected to leave the country this month as General Dan McNeil, a four-star US general, prepares to take command of the NATO forces in Afghanistan.

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