KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan insurgents are "significantly weaker" than a year ago, a U.S. commander said Monday, despite stepped-up resistance from Taliban-led rebels in recent weeks and clashes that have left dozens dead.
However, Col. Gary Cheek (search), commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, acknowledged that the military needed better ties with local Islamic leaders to shore up its reputation after deadly riots broke out last week over reported desecration of the Quran (search) at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Newsweek (search) magazine, which reported that investigators found evidence U.S. interrogators had placed copies of Islam's holy book in washrooms and had flushed one down the toilet, later acknowledged errors in the story and issued an apology.
Cheek claimed militants were tiring in the face of the growing authority of President Hamid Karzai's (search) government and its foreign-trained security forces, and were attracted by an American-backed reconciliation program.
Many of the clashes were now "limited to the border region where insurgents can launch small-scale attacks, then attempt to return to Pakistan," Cheek said at a news conference marking the end of his 11-month deployment in Afghanistan.
"The insurgency in Afghanistan is not over, though certainly by any logic our adversaries should call it quits. I would characterize our enemies as significantly weaker that they were a year ago and their influence continues to wane."
U.S. and Afghan troops have fought a string of battles with Taliban-led insurgents since early April. About 150 militants have been reported killed in the period, along with 30 members of the Afghan security forces, three U.S. troops and a Romanian soldier.
In the latest incident, a land mine packed with additional explosives blew up under a vehicle carrying government troops in southeastern Zabul province (search), killing two of the soldiers and injuring five others, the U.S. military said.
Cheek acknowledged an increasing number of attacks using homemade bombs. But he said much of the fighting was down because of increased U.S. operations and the presence of four new Afghan battalions in his area alone.
Midlevel commanders from both the Taliban (search) and the militia of fugitive former premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (search) were seeking to make peace with the government and U.S. forces under an official reconciliation drive, Cheek said, though he cautioned that the process could be slow.
"Many of them are just plain tired of fighting and constantly being on the run," Cheek said.
Asked about the anti-American protests that left at least 15 people dead, Cheek said the episode showed that the military needed closer links with Islamic leaders to shore up its image among ordinary Afghans.
"There are some religious leaders and their followers that were deeply disturbed by this to where they felt they had to take action," Cheek said. "We should come in and engage those leaders."
In a bid to head off resentment of the dominant U.S. role in Afghanistan, Karzai has since called for his government to have the final say on military operations conducted by the U.S.-led coalition.
Cheek, however, said the military had already acceded to government wishes to reduce nighttime raids and would only inform Afghan officials of operations afterward.
"We're going to make great efforts to keep the governors informed of actions as soon as we can after they occur," he said.