KABUL: US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday he was convinced the war in Afghanistan was on the right track as he toured the country to assess Washington’s strategy for reversing the Taliban’s momentum.
Senior military officers echoed that view when Gates stopped in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces — Taliban strongholds — saying US-led international forces had made progress in the months since an extra 30,000 troops were deployed.
The deployment was ordered by US President Barack Obama a year ago and was completed over the summer, raising the total US force to about 100,000, easily the largest component of the 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan.
“As I return to Washington, the United States government will be finishing work on an evaluation off the situation here,” Gates told a news conference with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
“I will go back convinced that our strategy is working and that we will be able to achieve key goals laid out by President Obama last year, further embraced by other NATO heads of state in Lisbon,” Gates said.
Obama has pledged to begin handing over security control to Afghan forces in July 2011.
At a Lisbon summit last month, leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization endorsed Karzai’s call for the transition to be completed by the end of 2014.
Asked about the awkwardness meeting Karzai after WikiLeaks’ release of US diplomatic cables referring to the Afghan leader as an erratic and unreliable ally, Gates said the revelations had been “extraordinarily embarrassing to the United States”.
“I would say that America’s best partners and friends, and I include among them President Karzai, have responded to this in my view in an extraordinarily statesmanlike way,” he said.
The Obama administration plans to complete its review of the Afghanistan war strategy some time next week. Officials have said the review is aimed at refining the strategy and they do not expect major shifts, a view echoed in Kabul.
“It will note that there has been progress, that the additional forces have enabled the expansion of the security bubbles in Helmand and Kandahar and around Kabul and then some smaller areas in the east, but that clearly there is a good deal more work that needs to be done,” a senior defense official said.
Gates flew to US bases in eastern and southern Afghanistan over the past two days for a first-hand look at progress in the war, which has become increasingly unpopular with the US public after nine years of fighting and no clear end in sight.
“I’m feeling we’re on the right track and we’ve just got to stick to it,” Gates told US to Marines at Camp Leatherneck not far from the once hotly contested town of Marjah in Helmand.
“The Marines since coming a year ago last summer have really been in the fight and I think have not just…stopped the momentum of the Taliban but in a lot of places have reversed it as well,” he said.
General Richard Mills, commander of NATO forces in the southwest region, said international and Afghan forces had uprooted Taliban fighters from many areas and were now working on economic and infrastructure development and governance. But he acknowledged difficult fighting still takes place in some areas.
“Sangin … is rough,” he said, calling the area in Helmand and its poppy-processing facilities a Taliban “treasury”.
“So he has got to hold onto Sangin. If he loses Sangin, all he has left is the desert and some of the mountains. He can’t survive on that,” Mills said of the Taliban.
General David Rodriguez, the deputy commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan, said he thought US forces would be in a position to begin slowly reducing troop numbers in the region beginning in 2011 as more and more Afghan forces are trained up.
He said that initially in Helmand they had less than a brigade of Afghan forces, whereas now there is the equivalent of a corps, which would be several brigades. Some analysts have criticized the quality of newly trained Afghan forces, but Gates and other military leaders say the quality is improving. – Reuters