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State of Afghanistan 'deteriorating,' top U.S. commander says

Soldiers of the U.S. Army's Apache Company, 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment, evacuate a wounded soldier after their armored vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in the Tangi Valley of Afghanistan's Wardak Province.

David Goldman/David Goldman/The Associated Press

The war in Afghanistan is going so badly - "it is serious and it is deteriorating" - that America's top military commander Admiral Mike Mullen was grimly preparing a war-weary public Sunday for the possibility that many more U.S soldiers may soon be needed to quell the raging Taliban insurgency.

This already has been the bloodiest summer for both foreign troops and Afghans since 2001.

U.S. commanders are expected to ask President Barack Obama - who campaigned on getting Americans troops out of Iraq so they could focus on winning in Afghanistan - for three or four additional brigades (as many as 20,000 more soldiers) next month.

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Sunday's high-profile round of televised interviews launched a campaign to drum up flagging public support.

At present, more than 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops - roughly matching the peak Soviet deployment in Moscow's failed 10-year effort to subjugate Afghanistan - are battling a resurgent Taliban that last month killed more foreign soldiers than at any time since former president George W. Bush ordered the Taliban toppled after 9/11.

Mr. Obama, who has left the White House for a week-long family holiday on the Martha's Vineyard, said last week in a rousing speech to thousands of veterans that defeating the Islamic extremists, who are threatening to retake Afghanistan and to destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan, was a "war of necessity."

But just how it can be done and whether Mr. Obama can win a hearts-and-minds battle among a war-weary American public remains unknown.

The three or four brigades that General Stanley McChrystal, who took command of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in June, is expected to seek in September, will push the allied troop levels far higher than during the 1980s when the Soviet Union failed to crush Afghan insurgents.

Adm. Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, America's most senior military commander, warns time is running out.

"We've got to start to turn this thing around from a security standpoint in the next 12 to 18 months," he said Sunday. That warning came on the heels of a flawed presidential election in Afghanistan where Taliban threats kept millions from the polls in the war-torn south and accusations of widespread vote-rigging threaten to further taint the outcome.

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Not only is American support on the wane - the latest polls show 54 per cent against the war and barely one in four believes it is worth sending more U.S. soldiers to fight in Afghanistan - but also some of Washington's staunchest allies are lining up to leave.

Both Canada and the Netherlands have set quit dates for their military efforts, not because they expect the war to be won or over, but because their citizens have had enough.

If Mr. Obama gets into serious domestic difficulties over the fragmenting alliance, Washington may press allies to do more - or at least not leave - but Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made clear he doesn't expect some allies such as Germany to take on a combat role.

Mr. Obama's new ambassador to Kabul, retired Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry, who made the talk show rounds with Adm. Mullen Sunday, praised the NATO effort but admitted "we're hoping for more progress with our allies.'' With "100,000 troops on the ground, about 40,000 of those are non-U.S." he said. "This is the most ambitious, the most difficult mission that NATO, in its 60-year history, has ever conducted."

Canada has about 2,500 military personnel deployed. More than 120 have been killed in three years of combat in Kandahar province, heartland of the Taliban.

Thousands of U.S. Marines are currently being sent to Helmand province. *

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"We have to take stock of the extraordinary commitments that our European and Canadian allies have made," Mr. Eikenberry said.

So far, Mr. Obama has faced little domestic outcry - of the sort that increasingly bedevilled the last years of Mr. Bush's presidency - over his open-ended commitment to increase the numbers of troops.

But Afghanistan remains a potential quagmire for the new president, who has made it his war.

Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama's Republican opponent last year and a leading military authority who was tortured for years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, warned Sunday that the "clock is ticking" on American public opinion of the Afghan war.

The U.S.-led foreign forces "need to see a reversal of these very alarming and disturbing trends on attacks, casualties and areas of the country that the Taliban has increased control of," Mr. McCain said.

Mr. McCain, a leading proponent of the "surge" that sent an additional 35,000 U.S. troops to Iraq to quell internecine fighting that threatened to tip the country into full-blown civil war, warned that American commanders in Afghanistan are coming under heavy pressure not to ask for too many troops.

"I don't think it's necessarily from the President. I think it's from the people around him," Mr. McCain warned.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows a majority of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, and just a quarter say more troops should be sent there.

More than 1,000 Afghans civilians have been killed so far this year, 24 per cent more than in 2008 and 50 per cent more than 2007. Although the Taliban cause the majority of civilian casualties, air strikes still kill hundreds and occasion far more outrage and attention.

Meanwhile, 289 foreign soldiers - including 21 Canadians - have been killed to date in 2009. Casualties are up 50 per cent over last year and roughly five times the levels in 2004. No one keeps track of Taliban deaths, but the number is believed to be in the thousands.

Hundreds of Afghan government soldiers and police have also been killed so far this year as the vast influx of U.S. troops have turned all of southern Afghanistan into a battleground.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Marines were being deployed to Kandahar province.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

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