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The top commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan says that 2009 will be a "tough fight" in Afghanistan, and the United States will need nearly twice as many troops for up to four years to stabilize the country.

Gen. David McKiernan told USA Today on Sunday that increasing U.S. troop levels from about 32,000 to 55,000 or 60,000 is "needed until we get to this tipping point where the Afghan army and the Afghan police have both the capacity and capability to provide security for their people. That is at least three or four more years away."

A report issued Monday by a Europe-based think tank said that the Taliban have expanded their presence in Afghanistan to cover more than 70 percent of the country.

The report, issued by the International Council on Security and Development, said that the Taliban presence this year was up from 54 percent of the country last year.

"While the international community’s prospects in Afghanistan have never been bleaker, the Taliban has been experiencing a renaissance that has gained momentum since 2005. The West is in genuine danger of losing Afghanistan," its authors wrote.

McKiernan told USA Today that he has asked the Pentagon for more than 20,000 soldiers, Marines and airmen. He also called on NATO nations to increase their commitment of troops to Afghanistan and to remove restrictions on how and when they can fight. There are about 31,000 troops from other nations in Afghanistan.

U.S. troop levels probably will need to remain at elevated levels for "several years at a minimum," Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told USA Today.

McKiernan told the paper that his request for more troops differs from the escalation in Iraq last year. The addition of more than 30,000 troops there, combined with a new strategy, helped improve security.

"I don’t like to use the word ‘surge’ here because if we put these additional forces in here, it’s going to be for the next few years," he said. "It’s not a temporary increase of combat strength."

The Paris-based ICSD, which maintains full-time offices in Afghanistan, said the Taliban have spread across much of the country and are beginning to encircle the capital, Kabul.

A NATO spokesman on Monday criticized the report, saying "we don’t see the figures in this report as being credible at all," according to wire services.

"The Taliban are only present in the south and east, which is already less than 50 percent of the country."

But the group contends that Taliban fighters have advanced out of southern Afghanistan, saying that Taliban forces can be found in 72 percent of Afghanistan, up from 54 percent a year earlier, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

"… [T]he Taliban has been experiencing a renaissance that has gained momentum since 2005," the report said. "[T]here is a danger that Afghanistan will be lost for at least another generation."

Other critics pointed out that the report defined "permanent Taliban presence" as a province that averaged at least one violent insurgent attack per week over the entire year.

Afghan government officials also criticized the report, calling it "questionable methodology" to base conclusions on "sporadic" attacks.

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