ABC News' Kristina Wong reports:
Three months ahead of the beginning of a July 2011 U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters today there has been “some uptick in activity” by Taliban fighers, but that he expected “an increase in the level of violence and activity beginning in a few weeks.”
“We're still kind of in the middle of the poppy harvest. And I think that -- so I think they're really expecting whatever return to the battlefield there is by the Taliban will be probably sometime more in May -- in May and June,” he told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday.
Gen. James Cartright, Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman, echoed Gates, saying that the recent uptick was more along the lines of the “individual spectacular attack rather than groups of people.”
While U.S. military officials have said the Taliban's momentum has been reversed, today Gates said its fighters “clearly intend to try to take that back.”
“My own view is that this year is a critical year,” he said. “If we can prevent them this year from retaking the areas that we have taken away from them, and we can continue to expand the security bubble, I think it's possible that by the end of this year we will have turned a corner just because of the Taliban being driven out, and, more importantly, kept out.”
“But,” he said, “that's more months into the future than it is -- than it is weeks.”
From Afghanistan, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Sean Mulholland, deputy commander of RC-North, said he was “cautiously optimistic.”
“The winter gains are still holding. We haven't lost any territory,” he told reporters today from Afghanistan. “I would still say we are still in the woods. We're not out of the woods. We still need to be relentless in continuing to pressure the Taliban and the bad actors up here. But the trend is for the positive right now in terms of how the -- how the local populace feels about ISAF and their security forces and how we're progressing.”
While American casualties in Afghanistan due to hostile fire are comparable to last year’s, there has been a significant uptick in this April compared to last April, according to statistics compiled by iCasualties.org.
22 U.S. troops have been killed so far this month,, compared to 14 U.S. troops last April.