Violence in Afghanistan is up about 25 percent this year over last year, according to Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, who commands U.S. forces in the restive eastern region of the country. As he spoke to Pentagon reporters Tuesday, Schloesser, who is preparing to head back to the States after 15 months on the ground in Afghanistan, noted that even this could be seen as an improvement. "Let's kind of go back, if you don't mind, to the first press conference that we did," he said. "I think some of you recall that I was very honest, and I said that in the few months that we'd seen an increase in violence of 40 percent."
That first news conference was one year ago. Today, Pentagon officials bluntly warn that there are more casualties to come.
In confirmation hearings this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has been tapped to take over command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from Gen. David McKiernan, said that he expected U.S. casualties to rise as troops push into southern Afghanistan and face "significant resistance" from insurgents.
It is a region where there have up to now been few U.S. forces. Marines cleared out some key villages in the violent southern Helmand province last May, but top Pentagon officials say that U.S. troops will likely have to clear some of those areas again. This is because there have not been enough troops on the ground to hold territory in the past.
That's changing, Pentagon officials say. By summer's end, there will be an additional 21,000 U.S. troops on the ground.
Equally important, they add, is the goal of preparing the Afghan national army to keep some swaths of territory insurgent-free themselves.
At the moment, there simply aren't enough Afghan soldiers to do this, senior Pentagon officials concede. McChrystal agreed during his testimony this week. "Odds are high that we're going to need additional security forces," he said, calling for a "significantly higher" number of Afghans to be trained and added to the Afghan military's roles.
Currently, the goal is to produce 134,000 Afghan soldiers throughout the country. Privately, senior U.S. military officials say that they are going to need to double that goal, to somewhere between 250,000 to 300,000 Afghan soldiers, to help secure the country. There are currently 86,000 Afghan national Army troops, and attrition remains a concern in the face of a violent insurgency.
McChrystal said that he is "just not sure at this point" whether the U.S. military will need an additional 10,000 U.S. soldiers to be sent to Afghanistan, a request repeatedly made by McKiernan. McChrystal added, "We need to start making progress in the next 18 to 24 months."