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Afghanistan Commander Walks Back Comments on Taliban Successes

BY Tom LeGro  August 10, 2009 at 1:06 PM EDT

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal; NATO image

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who will soon present an assessment of the war to top U.S. officials, said the resurgent Taliban have forced a change of tactics, and he warned that record casualties would remain high for some months.

“It’s a very aggressive enemy right now,” McChrystal said in an interview in Kabul. “We’ve got to stop their momentum, stop their initiative. It’s hard work.”

However, a spokesman for McChrystal told NBC News on Monday morning that the Wall Street Journal’s headline and lead “go too far.”

Under the Wall Street Journal’s headline, “Taliban Now Winning,” reporters Yochi J. Dreazen and Peter Spiegel wrote: “The Taliban have gained the upper hand in Afghanistan, the top American commander there said, forcing the U.S. to change its strategy in the eight-year-old conflict by increasing the number of troops in heavily populated areas like the volatile southern city of Kandahar, the insurgency’s spiritual home.”

McChrystal’s spokesman categorically denies that the general said the Taliban is winning, reported NBC News.

“The general did not say the Taliban is gaining the upper hand,” the spokesman said.

Violence across Afghanistan in 2009 had already reached its worst levels since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-led Afghan forces in 2001 and escalated dramatically after major offensives were launched in southern Helmand province in July.

At least 41 U.S. troops were killed in July, easily surpassing the previous monthly record of 26 in September last year. At least 71 foreign troops also were killed in July.

The United States plans to increase the number of its troops to about 68,000 by year’s end, more than double the 32,000 it had stationed in Afghanistan at the end of 2008.

McChrystal told the Wall Street Journal some 4,000 U.S. troops still to arrive would be deployed to Kandahar. “It’s important and so we’re going to do whatever we got to do to ensure Kandahar is secure,” he said.

There were also conflicting reports Monday about Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, whom the United States and Pakistan say was killed in a CIA missile attack last week.

Pakistani Taliban deputy Hakimullah Mehsud called the Associated Press following reports that he was killed during a clash among militants seeking to succeed Baitullah Mehsud, the group’s leader.

He said in Monday’s call that the Pakistan Taliban remain united despite government reports that there is infighting. He also insists that Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud is alive.

Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik told BBC radio Monday that all the “credible information” points to Baitullah Mehsud having died in the Wednesday missile attack. The Pakistan Taliban appear in disarray, Malik said.