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General: More Taliban in southern Afghanistan

Coalition has made progress against al Qaeda, commander says

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Taliban's influence has grown in parts of southern Afghanistan over the past year, the top U.S. commander in that country said Wednesday.

Observations from coalition forces, Afghan institutions and others in the country "gives us a sense that the number of Taliban fighters in certain districts [northern Kandahar, northern Helmand and Oruzgan provinces] may have increased over the past several months," Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry told reporters in Washington.

Eikenberry, commanding general of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, said the Taliban isn't "necessarily a strong enemy." But it is strong enough to exploit and coerce weak government institutions. (Watch as the Taliban gains strength -- 2:42)

The Taliban is the Islamic militant movement that governed Afghanistan and harbored the al Qaeda terror network, which attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.

The general said "very good progress" has been made by the forces hunting down and battling al Qaeda members hunkered down in the region. He added that although many high- and mid-level al Qaeda leaders had been captured or killed, leader Osama bin Laden was a key objective.

"Bin Laden remains one man," he said. "He does remain a man, though, in terms of the need for us to find him, to bring to closure his attacks against the United States and the international community. That's a commitment that we maintain every day. And we will not rest until we find and capture or kill bin Laden."

Eikenberry said militants in Afghanistan have changed tactics over the past year, using more improvised explosive devices and increasing suicide bombings. He said "total numbers have increased, but relative to a low baseline there."

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