By Paul Tait
KABUL (Reuters) - International forces in Afghanistan have at times overstated the progress being made this year, the deputy commander of the NATO-led force said on Saturday, with advances coming slower than originally expected.
British Lieutenant-General Sir Nick Parker, second-in-command of the International Security Assistance Force behind U.S. General David Petraeus, said progress had been slowed by the complexity of the mission.
Petraeus has said in a range of interviews in recent weeks that progress was being made and that the Taliban's momentum had been checked, though violence across the country is at its worst since the hardline Islamists were ousted in late 2001.
Progress made is coming into sharper focus, with President Barack Obama to conduct a strategy review in December and public support for the war sagging amid record casualties.
For the past year, principally U.S. and British NATO forces have been pushing through Taliban strongholds in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces, making painstaking progress through a network of valleys and mountains and seeking to counter a growing Taliban-led insurgency from all sides.
ISAF troops have faced stiff resistance since Operation Moshtarak began in late February, particularly around the Taliban stronghold of Marjah in the Helmand River valley.
"If you were to go back and listen to the sort of things we said in January and February, before Moshtarak started, I think we were probably a little bit over-enthusiastic," Parker told a small group of reporters in Kabul.
"I was, in some of the things I said, a little bit too positive in some respects," he said.
GOVERNMENT IN A BOX
Military casualties have risen as the number of operations have grown, with more than 490 killed so far this year compared with 521 in all of 2009.
Parker said it had proven more difficult than expected to establish lasting government and development agencies, despite hopes for a new "government in a box" strategy to follow military operations in Marjah.
"That's nobody's fault, that's just the complexity of the environment we're operating in," Parker said.
On Tuesday, Petraeus said in an interview that his forces had taken a heavy toll on the Taliban leadership, but also acknowledged that the Islamists were fighting back and that their "footprint" had spread this year.
Petraeus commands close to 150,000 troops, most of them American, with the last elements of a surge of an extra 30,000 ordered by Obama now in place.
As part of the decision to send the extra troops, Obama also said U.S. forces would begin a gradual withdrawal from July 2011 if conditions on the ground -- primarily the readiness of Afghan forces to take over -- allowed.
U.S. commanders lately have sought to temper expectations of large withdrawals. Petraeus said the process would likely begin with a "thinning out" rather than any large-scale reduction and that the transition would initially be made at the district level rather than by province, as NATO members had discussed.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has also set an ambitious target of 2014 for Afghan forces to assume total security responsibility from foreign troops.
"It's entirely reasonable for us to work within that kind of guideline," Parker said.
He said that, despite the difficulties, ISAF troops were slowly beginning to establish secure areas that would allow government and development institutions to move in.
"We've got to be on the balls of our feet, ready to react properly as these trends start to manifest themselves," said Parker, who finishes his assignment at the end of September.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)