Gen. McChrystal cautioned that he doesn't yet believe the U.S.-led coalition is winning or has "turned the corner." He also said that his conclusion is based more on anecdotal evidence than hard data. But he said he has heard increasingly positive feedback from tribal leaders about the security situation in southern Afghanistanlong the most violent part of the countrywhich has led him to believe his troops have begun to halt the Taliban's momentum. "I'm not prepared to draw it on a map; I'm not prepared to give you numbers," Gen. McChrystal told a small group of reporters here ahead of a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers. "But I'm prepared to tell you what I see. And what I feel gives me that sense." Gen. McChrystal sent shock waves through official Washington last summer, just weeks after arriving in Kabul, when he submitted a classified assessment of the war effort to President Barack Obama in which he described Afghanistan as "serious and deteriorating." Since then, thousands of Marines have poured into southern Helmand province, where in some areas military officials believe they see signs of stability taking root. Still, violence in the country remains intense. In January, 30 Americans were killed in Afghanistan, by far the highest casualty rate during Afghan's normally quiet winter months since the war began, according to, which tracks coalition fatalities. On Thursday, a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives near a hotel in Kandahar, also in southern Afghanistan, killing at least six people and wounding nearly two dozen, officials said, according to the Associated Press. Other senior U.S. military leaders have offered less optimistic outlooks. During congressional hearings this week, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Taliban have "growing influence" in most of Afghanistan's provinces and that Taliban militants still believe they are winning the war. Gen. McChrystal acknowledged the Taliban's strength, saying they continue to make a "significant effort" to "expand their influence." Although he said he believes the situation remains serious, he said he saw increasing signs of progress in recent weeks as he met with tribal leaders and visited local markets in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Gen. McChrystal's comments come ahead of what is expected to be the largest offensive of the war since the initial invasion of Afghanistan by allied forces in 2001. NATO military commanders have taken the rare strategy of publicly announcing the operation into the Helmand river valley town of Marjah ahead of the operation, to encourage Taliban fighters to either drop their arms or flee. Gen. McChrystal acknowledged that the advance notice has allowed Taliban insurgents to prepare for the attack, particularly by laying roadside bombs in areas that U.S. and allied troops intend to move into. But he said he believed telegraphing the operation would send the message to the local population that the U.S. and its local allies were moving aggressively to improve security and could convince Taliban in the area to open dialogue with the Afghan government. "It is a little unconventional to do it this way, but it gives everybody a chance to think through what they're going to do before suddenly in the dark of night they're hit with an offensive," he said. Gen. McChrystal declined to give a specific date for the start of the offensive, but said it would begin "relatively soon." The two-day meeting of defense ministers here, which began Thursday night, is expected to focus on Afghanistan. U.S. officials said Defense Secretary Robert Gates will push European allies yet again to contribute more forces to the war effort. Although the U.S. has secured nearly 9,000 forces from its NATO allies to accompany the Obama administration's 30,000-troop surge, senior U.S. officials said military commanders still believe they need as many as 4,000 more trainers to serve as mentors to Afghan police and army units. U.S. officials had hoped that, following last month's international conference on Afghanistan in London, France and Germany would combine to contribute thousands of additional troops. But Germany committed only 850 soldiers350 of whom will remain in reserveand France has sent mixed signals about whether it will contribute any more. U.S. officials are expected to press the French particularly hard. President Nicholas Sarkozy in recent weeks reiterated that France wouldn't send combat troops, but left the door open for sending trainers to Afghanistan. "The French are looking at what they can do," said one senior U.S. official. "Most countries have announced publicly; the French haven't yet." The official said Mr. Gates will begin the lobbying effort at the ministers meeting, adding that the Obama administration hopes it will get additional commitments at a conference NATO is holding at the end of the month. "Between now and then, you will find the secretary general of NATO and the United States going out and seeing if we can fill that training gap," said the official. "The push will start today. The secretary will have a plea for more trainers." Gen. McChrystal said the additional need for trainers and mentoring teams came to light following heavy recruitment of Afghan army troops and police since a pay raise was instituted late last year. Although the Afghan training mission has been habitually underresourced, Gen. McChrystal said, the sudden rise in recruits coupled with recent approval for faster growth in Afghan security forces highlighted the "gap" between the current level of trainers and the number needed to churn out new Afghan soldiers and police at the increased pace. (WSJ)