KABUL, Afghanistan, – After two days of shuttling to U.S. bases across Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared Wednesday that Washington's year-old surge strategy for the war is working and the goal of pulling U.S. troops out of major combat by 2014 can be met.
Gates' assertion came after he met with commanders at U.S. bases in the south and others along the Pakistan border, where troops are struggling to battle a continuing flow insurgents crossing the border from Pakistan.
It also followed a series of somber ceremonies that drove home the human cost of the war: Gates pinned medals on troops who were injured in the fight; some had thrown themselves into the line of fire to save others.
"Coalition and Afghan forces are suffering more casualties, but there is no denying that the security climate is improving and that the sacrifices of Afghan and coalition troops are achieving greater safety and security for both our nations," Gates, flanked by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, told reporters at a news conference.
President Barack Obama wants to begin pulling out U.S. troops in June 2011, as they begin transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces. Senior military officials said Wednesday that the earlier transitions will probably include districts in the south — an improved but still worrisome region that spawned the Taliban. One likely possibility is Nawa in Helmand Province.
Gates said he is going back to Washington convinced that "we will be able to achieve the key goals laid out by President Obama last year."
While Karzai also spoke positively about the transition, he made clear his country needs far more equipment and training from the U.S. to meet security needs and turn his Army into an institution that can endure after the international community leaves.
Karzai said the U.S. has said he will get thousands of armored vehicles, personnel carriers and other equipment, but he maintained that the country would need much more, including air power, to be a strong ally than can defend itself.
The transition of security responsibilities from the U.S. to Afghanistan is a cornerstone of the Obama administration's commitment to begin withdrawing U.S. forces next June. But it will hinge on the U.S. and Afghan forces' ability to keep the Taliban at bay next spring, when insurgents traditionally revive their attacks.
Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of the International Security Assistance Force's joint command, told reporters Wednesday that officials are looking at several places to begin the transition, but he said they probably won't make any final decisions for another three months. Afghans already do much of the security in Kabul; officials want to extend that to the rest of the country.
U.S. Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commander of U.S. forces in the south, pointed to Nawa as a place where Afghan Army and police already outnumber U.S. troops. And he said his forces are already moving to the outskirts of the city.
"I think the conditions are set in certain parts of the province right now to be able to turn over significant responsibilities to the Afghans," Mills told reporters. "Nawa is probably our most advanced district."
An ongoing challenge, however, is Sangin, where Taliban insurgents are "fighting in desperation because this is his last toehold," said Mills, who met Gates at Forward Operating Base Howz-E-Madad in Helmand Province's central river valley.
Just a year ago, Helmand was vast Taliban stronghold, and in many areas there were no coalition forces at all. Since then, said Mills, there has been solid progress, as thousands of the 30,000 troop surge ordered by Obama last year poured into the region.
U.S. military commanders say they are working to connect patches of increased security from Kandahar through Helmand Province.
Eastern Afghanistan, however, is a tough challenge. Fighters, including the al-Qaida linked Haqqani network, continue to cross the border from sanctuaries in Pakistan to wage attacks. Gates spent much of Tuesday there, hearing a mixed message of continued difficult battles offset in some areas by a decline in roadside bombs.