Friday, February 5, 2010
By the BBC
Security in Afghanistan remains serious but is no longer deteriorating, the Nato commander in the country has said.
At a meeting of Nato defence ministers in Turkey, General Stanley McChrystal told media the situation in Afghanistan had improved since last summer.
While US President Barack Obama was considering a troop surge last year, Gen McChrystal warned in a UK speech that Afghanistan was deteriorating.
His more upbeat assessment comes as Nato prepares a big Helmand offensive.
Gen McChrystal told reporters on the sidelines of Thursday's meeting in Istanbul: "I still will tell you that I believe the situation in Afghanistan is serious.
"I do not say now that I think it's deteriorating. I think and I said that last summer, and I believed that that was correct. I feel differently now."
But the American commander cautioned: "I'm not prepared to say that we've turned the corner, so I am saying that the situation is serious but I think we have made significant progress and set the conditions in 2009 and we'll make new progress in 2010."
His remarks comes as coalition and Afghan troops prepare an offensive to capture the central Helmand town of Marjah from Taliban militants.
Unlike past operations, plans for this one have been widely publicised - although no start date has been released - in the hope that civilians will stay out of the way.
It will be the first major military action since President Obama announced his surge of 30,000 extra US troops for Afghanistan in December.
Gen McChrystal had warned there was only limited time to turn around the "deteriorating" situation in Afghanistan, during a speech last October to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
He has said the next 18 months could prove crucial after more than eight years of international efforts to stabilise Afghanistan.
A reminder of the challenge facing the coalition came on Thursday when a suicide car bomber killed three people near a hotel in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
The opening stages of the Helmand offensive - codenamed Moshtarak, which means "together" in the Pashtun language of southern Afghanistan - have been under way for several weeks.
The UK defence ministry said on Thursday the action had moved into a new phase over the last 36 hours.
Nato forces had taken part in an air and ground operation to clear insurgents from strongholds west of the Helmand province capital Lashkar Gah, the ministry told journalists.
As well as British and American forces, the operation will include 2,700 Afghan troops.
While British troops target militants in the area of Helmand between Nad Ali and Lashkar Gah, US forces are expected to focus on Marjah, the UK defence ministry said.