US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he wants to send more troops to Afghanistan "sooner rather than later," signaling a shift in priorities from Iraq amid warnings of an accelerating Taliban threat.
Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said Pakistan needed to do more to stop the unimpeded flow of Taliban and other fighters into Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan.
"There is a real need to do something on the Pakistani side of the border to bring pressure to bear on the Taliban and some of these other violent groups," Gates said.
The US defense chief denied as "untrue" a report that US forces were massing on the border to go into Pakistan. But he did not rule out unilateral military action across the border.
The growing threat was cited by US commanders in Afghanistan in their requests for some 10,000 more troops, as well as a doubling of the number of mine resistant, armor protected vehicles (MRAPS) they now have to protect troops from roadside explosions.
Alarm over the deteriorating security was punctuated Sunday by the death of nine US soldiers in an insurgent attack on a combat outpost, the deadliest on US forces since 2005.
"It’s a tougher fight; it’s a more complex fight; and (commanders) need more troops to have the long-term impact that we all want to have there," Mullen said.
"I think we are clearly working very hard to see if there are opportunities to send additional forces sooner rather than later," said Gates, adding that no decisions have been taken yet.
A senior military official said the focus is on sending more "enabling capabilities" such as military engineers, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assets, aviation assets, and civil affairs units.
"There is a very clear, conscious effort to flow as much to Afghanistan as fast as we can get it there," said the official, who asked not to be identified.
Mullen, who just returned from visits to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, said he expected to be able to recommend further US troop cuts this year in Iraq if security conditions continue to improve.
In the past Mullen has tied any significant increase in US forces in Afghanistan to deeper troop cuts in Iraq.
Currently there are 36,000 US troops in Afghanistan and 150,000 in Iraq.
"Security is unquestionably and remarkably better" in Iraq, Mullen said.
But he portrayed the situation in Afghanistan in more urgent terms.
"One need look no further than the well-coordinated attack on Wanat outpost this weekend to see that the enemy has grown bolder, more sophisticated and diverse," Mullen said.
"The bottom line is this: we are seeing a greater number of insurgents and foreign fighters flowing across the border with Pakistan unmolested and unhindered. This movement needs to stop," he said.
Mullen said the group that launched the attack trained in safe havens in Pakistan.
"We see this threat accelerating, almost becoming a syndicate of different groups who heretofore had not worked closely together," he said.
Mullen added: "It’s very clear that additional troops will have a big impact on insurgents coming across that border.
"It would be much better if there was that pressure on the Pakistani side. But clearly additional troops there would have a significant impact," he said.
Mullen said that in his meetings with Pakistani leaders he emphasized the need to do more to control their border. But he would not comment on their response.
Pakistan’s new civilian government pulled army troops out of its Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Afghan border in March, in a move that has lifted the pressure on militant groups in Pakistan.
Gates, who said attacks inside Pakistan have doubled in the past year, said the country’s new civilian government should understand that the militants pose a growing danger to it as well.