WASHINGTON – The top U.S. general in Afghanistan on Wednesday challenged the widely held view that the insurgency there is worsening, saying he thinks "it's probably stayed about the same."
Speaking to Pentagon reporters, U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill also said some of the reasons American forces are having better success there than NATO allies is they come with more money to hand out for reconstruction projects and they stay longer -- serving controversial 15-month tours of duty that are straining the U.S. Army, compared to six-month tours typically served by other nations.
The comments by McNeill -- commander of the 39-nation International Security Assistance Force -- comes as the Bush administration reviews its efforts in the six-year-old war, which last year experienced it most violent year yet.
And it follows an independent report last week that said Afghanistan risks sliding into a failed state and becoming the "forgotten war" because of deteriorating international support and a growing violent insurgency being fought by a resurgent Taliban.
Asked if believes the insurgency is growing, McNeill said: "I think that it's probably stayed about the same as what it was."
McNeill said the difference is there are some 8,000 to 9,000 more troops on the battlefield there now, compared to a year ago, and so more people are exposed to more dangers.
"They've stuck their noses in dark holes in which noses that were international have not been stuck before," he added.
"We exposed ourselves to a lot more things than the force has exposed themselves to in times past," McNeill said. "And that more than anything created the increased levels of violence that are so often referred to in the news, and that people fail to realize what caused those. (There) wasn't a resurgent Taliban."
Overall, there are about 43,000 troops in the NATO-led coalition now, compared to a force of about 35,500 when McNeill took command a year ago. Of the current total, 16,000 are U.S. troops. There are an additional 13,000 U.S. troops there training Afghan forces and hunting al-Qaida terrorists.
Alluding to recent comparisons between the ability of U.S. forces to conduct counterinsurgency missions and that of the NATO forces, McNeill said American troops have several advantages -- more time on the ground and more money to use freely for reconstruction.
He said that while the longer 15-month tours are a strain on the U.S. force, they give the soldiers and commanders on the ground time to "develop a relationship with the terrain, with the indigenous people and their leadership, and with the enemy. And they have sufficient time to exploit that relationship to their advantage."
Also, he said commanders have fewer bureaucratic roadblocks in their ability to spend money for counterinsurgency battles and the rebuilding needed in the immediate aftermath.
NATO allies, he said, accept that such U.S. operations are more effective.
"That's not a derisive comment about anybody or anything, certainly not members of the alliance," he said. "It's just that, clearly, the U.S. has put the effort into making this piece of it right."