(AFP) - US Defence Secretary Robert Gates is to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai and top military officials to determine the best way to tackle a Taliban resurgence in the war-wracked country.
Gates flew into Afghanistan on Monday after a stop at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he discussed the situation with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and General Bantz Craddock, NATO's supreme commander, reports Trend.
"Success in Afghanistan is our top priority," he told reporters after the Brussels meeting.
The new US defense chief has expressed concern that a Taliban revival in southern Afghanistan and the slow pace of reforms and economic reconstruction under Karzai threatens gains made since the Taliban's ouster in December 2001.
"One of the subjects we've been discussing was the increased level of violence last year and some indication that the Taliban want to increase the level of violence in 2007," he said.
He said they discussed how to respond to that "and perhaps to try to act to avert it".
NATO forces have remained active through the winter, traditionally a dormant period for Afghan insurgents because of the heavy snows that prevent movement in the mountainous border areas.
Scores of insurgents were killed in air and ground attacks last week trying to infiltrate from Pakistan, NATO officials have said.
On Tuesday, Gates will meet Karzai, the top US commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, and the commander of the 33,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), British General David Richards.
His visit comes less than a week after President George W. Bush announced plans to send more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq, further stretching US forces.
But Gates will query US and NATO commanders on whether they have enough troops and other resources to deal with the surge in Taliban activity, a senior US defence official said.
The United States has 22,000 troops in Afghanistan, about half of them with ISAF and the other half dedicated to counter-terrorism missions and training the Afghan army.
In his talks with Karzai, Gates is expected to reaffirm US commitment to Afghanistan's central government and discuss ways it can extend its reach and influence beyond Kabul.
How to deal with Taliban safe havens in Pakistan's tribal border areas is another issue that is almost certain to be discussed.
Karzai has bitterly blamed the government of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf for the Taliban's comeback and relations between the two governments have been strained by the upsurge in attacks.
On Tuesday a military spokesman in Islamabad said Pakistani soldiers had attacked and destroyed three militant camps in a dawn operation on a tribal region bordering Afghanistan, killing up to 30 fighters.
Major General Shaukat Sultan said helicopter gunships swooped on the camps in the tribal district of South Waziristan after reports that 25 to 30 local and foreign militants were there.
The strike came days after unusually frank criticism from US intelligence director John Negroponte that top Al-Qaeda leaders had found "secure hideouts" in Pakistan from where they were regrouping and leading new operations.
Pakistan furiously rejected the complaint but admitted it was struggling to stop insurgents loyal to the Taliban regime moving back and forth across the porous border.
Gates's last involvement with Afghanistan was as a senior CIA official in the 1980s, at a time when the US spy agency was funding and arming an Islamic insurgency that drove the Soviets from Afghanistan.
Now in his fourth week on the job after an extended absence from government, he is taking charge of the US armed forces at a time when the US position in the Middle East is under pressure from Islamic militants and Iran.
In Brussels, he defended a US decision to send a second aircraft carrier battle group and Patriot missile defence to the Gulf as a move meant to show US commitment to the region.
He said that as recently as 2004, when he co-authored a report on US policy towards Iran, he believed diplomatic engagement was worth trying with Tehran because it was doing some constructive things in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"None of those conditions apply any longer," he said. "The Iranians believe that they are in a position to press us in many ways. They are doing nothing to be constructive in Iraq at this point."
"In addition they have supported Hezbollah's efforts to create a new conflict in Lebanon, and so the Iranians are acting in a very negative way in many respects," he said.
"My view is when the Iranians are prepared to play a constructive role in dealing with many of these problems, then there might be opportunities for engagement," he said.