US Defense Secretary Visits Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is making his first visit to Afghanistan since taking the job last month. VOA's Benjamin Sand reports from Islamabad that U.S. officials want to discuss Taleban attacks that have increased since Pakistan signed a controversial peace deal with tribal militants last September.

Secretary Gates is meeting with military and civilian leaders during his two-day visit to Afghanistan to discuss ways to cut a growing surge in Taleban militant attacks. He came to Kabul Monday after stopping in Brussels to discuss Afghanistan's military and political importance with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

"The mission in Afghanistan - the first outside NATO's traditional European borders - is a model of the organization's potential in this new era," he said. "Success in Afghanistan is our top priority."

Last year was Afghanistan's deadliest since U.S. led forces ousted the hardline Islamic Taleban from power in 2001 for harboring al-Qaida terrorists.

Gates said success this year will obviously require a military response, but also stressed the need to step up support for Afghanistan's social and economic development.

Lt. General Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told his new boss that more troops would be needed. Eikenberry says Taleban attacks had jumped more than 200 percent in December and he expects them to intensify.

"I would expect that the enemy will have its main effort against southern Afghanistan and what we will see over the course of the spring is that the enemy will conduct terror attacks against Kandahar and other urban centers," he said.

Eikenberry says many senior Taleban commanders are clearly operating from inside Pakistan.

Several U.S. officials say Pakistan's strategy to secure the border has not worked. They specifically note a controversial peace accord the Pakistan government signed with tribal leaders near the Afghan border last September.

Under that deal, the government promised to suspend military operations against extremists in the region if tribal elders expelled foreign militants and helped stop pro-Taleban forces from launching cross-border raids into Afghanistan.

But U.S. officials in Afghanistan said the deal has backfired with militants taking advantage of the accord to launch more, not fewer, attacks.

Pakistan insists it is doing everything it can to improve regional security. Early Tuesday, the Pakistan army launched a powerful air strike against suspected al-Qaida camps near the Afghan border, reportedly killing a number of local and foreign militants.