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 a day before NATO talks here, pointed to signs of stability that, though difficult to quantify, indicate that Afghans also see improvements in many areas of commerce and daily life.
"I still will tell you the situation in Afghanistan is serious," he said. "I do not say now it is deteriorating."
During the summer, McChrystal described the security picture as deteriorating as Taliban influence expanded, especially in Pashtun tribal 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, he said, is an operation in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province that will begin within days. Officials have taken the unusual step of announcing the planned offensive, centered on the town of Marja.
McChrystal said the offensive would advance a counterinsurgency campaign begun in Helmand last summer to expand the area under government control. Officials have spoken openly about it in part to showcase the involvement of Afghans in its planning, but also to give militants a chance to lay down their weapons or flee. The discussion is also intended to convince Afghans that the situation in their country 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."
Officials are withholding some details of the offensive to retain an element of surprise. But publicizing it helps make the case that progress is occurring, McChrystal said.
"This is all a war of perceptions," he 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 North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers and are pressing allies for 2,500 additional military trainers.
McChrystal's assessment is more positive than that of other Obama administration officials recently.
Dennis C. Blair, the national intelligence director, said this week that the Taliban insurgency was "increasingly dangerous and destabilizing."
Though there are few concrete measures of progress, McChrystal cited such signs as newly bustling 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."