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General warns of Taliban fightback

The Taliban will fight back in the coming months in an attempt to regain ground lost in Helmand Province, the top Nato commander in Afghanistan has warned.

US general David Petraeus admitted that the insurgents had been allowed to make a comeback and that international forces did not halt their momentum until last year.

But he said the Taliban were now playing an "away game" after losing key territory in Helmand, where most of the UK's 10,000 troops in Afghanistan are based.

Gen Petraeus said between 100,000 and 120,000 extra Nato and Afghan forces would be ranged against the militants at the start of this year's "fighting season" compared to 2010.

The top commander told the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London that the insurgents had lost "very very important districts" in Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar.

"The Taliban wants to reverse all that. They want to regain these areas that were of such importance to them," he said. "But they will have to do it without owning those areas, needless to say.

"So in some respects, as (US defence) secretary Gates has said, they will be playing an away game this year rather than a home game as they have in the past."

Gen Petraeus described how the deteriorating situation in Iraq in the mid-2000s distracted from the mission in Afghanistan. He said: "In September 2005 it was clear to me then that the Taliban were beginning their comeback, indeed that they had re-established some infrastructure, a degree of momentum, and that continued over the course of the next five years.

"It was only last year that we were able to really halt that momentum and to reverse it in some very important places."

The general said he believed Afghan president Hamid Karzai was serious about reconciliation with the Taliban and confirmed there had been talks with high-level members of the insurgency. "There have been contacts - but I don't want to overstate them, and I obviously couldn't say with whom they have been - in recent months," he said.

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