WASHINGTON (AP) – Senior U.S. generals said Wednesday that more Afghan and NATO soldiers are needed to expand the fight against a Taliban-led insurgency in southern Afghanistan, although current military plans make such increases unlikely.

The American general who recently left his post as the top commander in Europe said NATO allies could and should send more forces and specialized help such as medical helicopters for the widening fight in the south.

“Certainly I’d like to see more U.K. forces,” Gen. John Craddock said, because home base for the major fight in the south is in Helmand province, where British forces have had the lead for years.

Craddock, who will retire in August, said NATO allies are too quick to come up with reasons they cannot contribute more to difficult missions, and lash so many restrictions on the troops they do send to Afghanistan that it limits every mission they might be used for.

“There’s always a reason to say, ‘we can’t do it right now,'” Craddock said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has all but given up his campaign to cajole or shame NATO allies into sending more forces into Afghanistan, and the United States added 21,000 troops this year largely because commanders in the south said they could not fulfill their mission otherwise.

A number of Taliban militants have fled Helmand province since the Obama administration launched its first major military operation in Afghanistan a week ago, Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson told reporters at the Pentagon. But some of them are expected to try to return for the lucrative poppy crop that Nicholson called “the engine that drives the Taliban.”

About 650 Afghan soldiers and police officers have joined the estimated 4,000 Marines in the offensive.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. The fact of the matter is, we don’t have enough Afghan forces,” Nicholson said during a telephone briefing from Camp Leatherneck in southern Afghanistan. “And I’d like more.”

While there is a plan to send more Afghan troops to the region, Nicholson said, “they’re just not available right now.”

Nicholson said he would like to have all of his Marine battalions paired up with Afghan battalions – a process he predicted would take at least several months.

The Pentagon has long known that training Afghan soldiers would be a large part of the renewed U.S. push in the nation. A training for of 4,000 training forces is part of the U.S. contingent that will be added by the end of September.

Nicholson also said he’d like more U.S. troops in the region, but that “I don’t necessarily need more troops.”

Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen on Wednesday avoided discussing the possibility of sending more troops, telling a National Press Club audience that the new U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was still assessing his force needs.

Craddock said that review, due in mid-August, will be paired with a similar assessment by NATO.

“I think we’ll hear shortly whether that’s enough,” he said of troops numbers.

The review will probably recommend subtle shifts in policy, such as an express focus on protecting civilians as the top mission, instead of hunting “bad guys,” Craddock said.

There were an estimated 57,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan as of Wednesday. That number is expected to rise to at least 68,000 by the end of 2009.

Fighting is continuing in the province, and Nicholson estimated there had been about 20 clashes with the Taliban so far in the weeklong offensive. No civilians have been killed so far, he said.

Nicholson said he did not know where the extremists have fled, although Marines in Helmand say the Taliban relocated to the Marjaa area west of the province.

But he predicted they’ll be back to make more money off Helmand’s poppy crops.

“The enemy is not just going to stay away,” Nicholson said.

In Khan Neshin, a southernmost town on the Pakistan border, U.S. and Afghan troops raised Afghanistan’s flag over an 18th-century castle in what Nicholson called “a kind of Iwo Jima moment.” Until recently, the town was a Taliban stronghold.

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