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Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal sees gains in Afghanistan

ISTANBUL (MCT) — The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said Thursday that security there is no longer deteriorating, a view that represents his most optimistic assessment yet.

Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, meeting with reporters in advance of a NATO meeting here, pointed to signs of stability that, while difficult to measure, indicate that Afghans also see improvements in many areas in commerce and daily life.

"I still will tell you the situation in Afghanistan is serious," McChrystal said. "I do not say now it is deteriorating."

As recently as last summer, McChrystal described the security picture as deteriorating as the Taliban influence expanded, especially in Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan.

"I feel differently now," McChrystal said. "I am not prepared to say we have turned the corner. The situation is serious but we (made) significant progress in setting conditions in 2009 and we will make real progress in 2010."

Key to the progress is an operation in the southern Afghanistan's Helmand province that will begin in a matter of days. U.S. and Afghan military officials have taken the unusual step of announcing the planned offensive, centered on the town of Marjah.

McChrystal said the offensive would advance a counter-insurgency campaign begun in Helmand last summer to increase areas under government control. Officials have spoken openly about the impending operation in part to showcase the involvement of Afghans in its planning, but also to give militant fighters a chance to lay down their weapons or flee. The advance discussion also is intended to convince Afghans that the situation is improving.

"We are trying to signal to the Afghan people we are expanding security where they live," McChrystal said. "We are also trying to signal to the insurgents, the Taliban and the narco-traffickers, that it is about to change. If they want to fight, that is an outcome. But if they don't want to fight, that's fine too."

Military officials are withholding crucial details about the exact timing and approach to retain the element of surprise on the tactical level. But publicizing the upcoming offensive helps U.S. and allied officials argue that progress is occurring, McChrystal said.

"This is all a war of perceptions," McChrystal said. "This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill, how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants."

McChrystal and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will meet Friday with NATO defense ministers and are pressing allies for 2,500 additional military trainers.

McChrystal's assessment is more positive than recent comments by other Obama administration officials. Dennis C. Blair, the national intelligence director, said in Washington this week that the Taliban insurgency was "increasingly dangerous and destabilizing."

While there is little in the way of concrete gauges of progress, McChrystal pointed to less tangible measures, such as newly bustling, safe markets in Helmand province. And he said local leaders have told him that security in many areas has improved since the summer.

"I am not prepared to say we are winning," he said. "But I am confident we will see significant progress."

(c) 2010, Tribune Co.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.