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WASHINGTON — Even with 17,000 more troops headed to Afghanistan, U.S. servicemembers face "a tough year" battling Taliban forces in the south, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan said Wednesday.

In a press conference one day after President Barack Obama announced he will send reinforcements to Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan said he plans to deploy the soldiers and Marines to the southern parts of the country, where fighting has been heaviest in recent months.

"Even with the additional forces, 2009 is going to be a tough year," he said. "But we do see an opportunity here with the new forces to break the stalemate in the south."

He also echoed Obama’s call for increased involvement by civilian departments in Afghanistan, saying military forces can help provide security but diplomatic and political improvements are needed to sustain that stability for years to come.

McKiernan said the 17,000 troops are "what I asked for through the summer" but that military commanders will revisit the need for additional units after the president’s strategic review.

He estimated that between the troops to be affected by Tuesday’s announcements and the troops already sent to Afghanistan, he has about two-thirds of the total force level he needs for the next few years, emphasizing that the higher end strength in Afghanistan is not a "surge" in troops to help with temporary problems.

"This will need to be sustained for an unknown period of time," he said.

But he dismissed comparisons to Russia’s failed attempts to take over the country in the 1980s, saying the U.S. efforts have the support of both the international community and the Afghan population.

"It is in our vital national security interests to succeed here," he said. "It is a country that is absolutely worth our commitment."

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