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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Kabul this morning. He's conferring with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and with senior U.S. and NATO commanders. It's the secretary's first visit to Afghanistan since he assumed the Pentagon leadership and it comes amid rising violence and predictions of a spring Taliban offensive.

NPR's Guy Raz reports from Kabul.

(Soundbite of airplane engines)

GUY RAZ: A C-17 is a large aircraft, a bit like a flying warehouse. It's how soldiers are often deployed and it's how Secretary Gates rolled into Kabul overnight. It's the safest way to fly into a war zone, and while Afghanistan is not Iraq, it's still unstable. Let's start with the numbers: 2006 was the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. And guess what?

Lieutenant General KARL EIKENBERRY (U.S. Army): It's going to be a violent spring, and I would expect that we'll have more violence into the summer.

RAZ: This is Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry. He's the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan and he's talking about an expected spring offensive launched by the Taliban. Eikenberry and his senior commanders briefed Secretary Gates behind closed doors most of the morning. The assessment Gates heard from Eikenberry was not promising.

Lt. Gen. EIKENBERRY: Compared to 2005 overall in Afghanistan, attack levels are up if you take December of 2005 to December of 2006.

RAZ: And the number is pretty staggering: insurgent attacks have skyrocketed over the past year by 400 percent. Senior military officials warn that Pakistan, with few exceptions, is doing little to stop cross-border infiltration into Afghanistan by insurgents.

And to make matters worse, NATO, which provides about two-thirds of the total force here, is stretched thin. Countries like Germany and Canada are reluctant to increase their force levels because of opposition at home, and it's one of the reasons why Secretary Gates is visiting with NATO commanders here. According to U.S. military officials, NATO is actually 10 percent below the size it's supposed to be.

There were five-times - five-times - the amount of suicide bomb attacks in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2006. This winter - and winter, I should say, is traditionally a time when attacks are supposed to slow down - well, this winter has been more violent than the summer of 2005. And strangely, while all these numbers seem to point in one direction, the outgoing U.S. commander here, General Eikenberry, argues they're actually an indication that the Afghan insurgency is getting weaker.

Lt. Gen. EIKENBERRY: On the surface, yeah, we're going to have more violence this spring. But underneath the surface right now, there are some very strong currents that are going in the right direction.

RAZ: And what Eikenberry is talking about are stronger institutions, like the Afghan government and army. And while the numbers may seem bleak, there is strong empirical evidence to show that Afghans, unlike Iraqis, overwhelmingly back the international security presence here in their country.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Kabul.

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