Gates sees momentum in Afghanistan but plays down prospects for reconciliation

By Greg Jaffe
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

KABUL -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday that recent military offensives against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan had gained momentum but that a reconciliation effort proposed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai was unlikely in the near term to cause senior Taliban leaders to lay down their arms.

Such defections will not happen until senior insurgent leaders begin to "realize that the odds of success are no longer in their favor," Gates said in a joint news conference with the Afghan president.

Karzai has proposed a major conference this spring to begin the process of reconciliation with dissident ethnic and political leaders, including the Taliban.

Gates arrived in Kabul to discuss Karzai's plans for his conference and to get a better sense of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's plans for a large offensive in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, which will probably take place this summer.

His visit comes about three weeks after McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, launched an assault on the southern town of Marja, the first major U.S. military operation in the country since President Obama announced his revised war strategy late last year. The Obama administration's approach is built around the addition of 30,000 U.S. troops and an increased focus on building Afghan governance at the district and provincial level.

Although Gates seemed less sanguine than Karzai about the immediate prospects for reconciliation, he said that as U.S., Afghan and NATO forces pushed the Taliban out of havens in the south and east, it was likely that some Taliban leaders would feel pressure to switch allegiances and support the Afghan government.

About 6,000 of the 30,000 additional troops approved by Obama in December have arrived in Afghanistan. "I would say it is very early yet and people still need to understand there is some very hard fighting and very hard days ahead," Gates said.

McChrystal said the coming offensive in Kandahar would look significantly different from the recent effort in Marja. U.S. Marines and Afghan forces mounted a large assault on the town, which was dominated by Taliban forces. There was essentially no Afghan government presence in Marja before the assault.

By contrast, there is already a government presence in Kandahar. Instead of U.S. and Afghan forces pushing directly into the city, U.S. officials plan to focus on the region around Kandahar, where the Taliban has been able to exact significant casualties on U.S., Afghan and NATO troops. "Kandahar has not been under Taliban control, [but] it has been under a menacing Taliban presence, particularly in the districts around it," McChrystal said.

The campaign to take back the city is likely to proceed far more gradually than the recent move into Marja. "There won't be a D-Day that is climactic," McChrystal said. "It will be a rising tide of security." In the weeks before the summer offensive, the United States will significantly bolster its presence in the province with Army troops. Afghan and U.S. leaders will begin reaching out to tribal elders in the area in an effort to win their support for military action and an enduring Afghan government presence.

If U.S. and Afghan forces can drive the Taliban from the region and reestablish an Afghan government presence, senior U.S. and NATO officials said it could swing the momentum of the war in favor of the struggling Karzai government. "If we are able to succeed in Kandahar and really ensure Kandahar is stable and sustainable, in my view the historians will look back on it as one of the decisive moments of this campaign," said Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative to Afghanistan.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company