WASHINGTON – President Bush will soon start holding periodic videoconferences with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a move that reflects growing concern over continued violence that is making this the deadliest year in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
The videoconferences, over a secure link, go along with reviews that the Bush administration and its NATO allies are conducting of their mission in Afghanistan. The reassessments point out a need to find better ways to coordinate the fight against al-Qaida and the hardline Taliban, help Karzai gain greater control outside the Afghan capital of Kabul and curb opium cultivation that bankrolls insurgents.
Bush's decision to have regular videoconferences with Karzai pushes U.S. policy in Afghanistan to a higher level. Bush has regular videoconferences with allies, including Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The U.S. review of Afghanistan is not as sweeping as the comprehensive examination of the mission in Iraq last winter that led Bush to send more troops. Success in Afghanistan, however, is a priority for Bush, who has been criticized by Democrats for focusing more on Iraq than on finding Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
"I can assure you that there are many people considering the situation in Afghanistan on an ongoing basis. They're constantly reviewing our posture, and that includes having dialogue with our allies in NATO," White House press secretary Dana Perino said Monday.
"There are reviews under way, as I understand it, that the British are looking at, that the Canadians are considering, and we are doing our ongoing assessment, as well," she said. "As to the scope and scale of the Iraq review that we did last winter, I would not describe it that way."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who met with U.S. allies in Scotland last week, said the U.S. would brainstorm for ideas on how other NATO allies might contribute more troops or equipment in Afghanistan. Gates has been pressing for more helicopters, 3,500 police trainers and three battalions of ground troops.
Gates also acknowledged during questioning by a Congressional committee recently that opinion polls of Afghans show increasing support for the radical Taliban.
This year, more than 6,300 people, mostly militants, have been killed in Afghanistan, according to an Associated Press count based on official figures. The country has also seen a record number of suicide bomb attacks -- more than 140 -- this year.
But Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, the deputy commanding general of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said Sunday that the international mission is making progress. Votel told journalists at Bagram, the main U.S. base, that, by U.S. measurements, security has increased in 25 districts that American forces oversee in eastern Afghanistan, governance has improved in 12 and development work has improved in 27. There are 159 districts in the eastern region of Afghanistan where U.S. troops primarily operate.
He said the U.S. military has killed or captured more than 50 key insurgent leaders this year, action that has created a vacuum on the battlefield. Still, he said that despite those losses, insurgents have shown some improvements in their effectiveness.
Progress by the Afghan army, which has had an increased role in operations this year, has been the biggest achievement the U.S. helped oversee in 2007, Votel said. Asked if al-Qaida fighters could be moving from Iraq into the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, he said it was a "distinct possibility."