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In visit to Afghanistan, Gates reminded of tough fight U.S. troops face

Continued photo coverage from the front lines of the military effort in Afghanistan.

Gates's visit also coincided with a trip to Afghanistan by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said he is encouraged by the signs of progress he saw while meeting troops. Britain has the second-largest foreign military contingent in Afghanistan, behind that of the United States.

At a news conference alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Cameron said that coalition forces "made real progress" this year. He added that "2011 must be the year in which that progress becomes irreversible."

In his speech announcing the surge a year ago, Obama promised to begin withdrawing at least some U.S. troops by July 2011. Since then, many administration officials have sought to play down the number of troops who will come home next summer. Instead, they have emphasized a different date, 2014, which is when NATO and Karzai have said they hope Afghan forces will be able to take lead responsibility for security throughout the country.

But with the surge of troops in place, U.S. commanders are under pressure to show more results. One of the toughest challenges has been the border region, where thousands of Taliban fighters are able to cross easily into Afghanistan from sanctuaries in the Pakistani tribal areas.

At Forward Operating Base Joyce in Konar province, Army Lt. Col. J.B. Vowell had a sobering security briefing prepared for Gates as soon as the defense secretary emerged from his helicopter. The briefing was titled "The Problems in Kunar" and proceeded to explain "Why 'They' Have Gotten Stronger."

"They" was a cumulative reference to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, foreign fighters and other insurgents who have seen Konar as a stronghold as far back as the 1980s, when the tables were turned and the U.S. government supplied local people so they could fight the Soviet Union.

That history, Vowell said, is indirectly hampering U.S. efforts to win the allegiance of civilians in Konar today.

"We have a survival culture - people are going to put a foot in both camps," he told Gates. "They were good at it with the Soviets. They're good at it now."

Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan, said that the influx of coalition forces has helped but that they are still trying to secure some populated areas. U.S. troops have withdrawn from some remote areas this year and are struggling in others, such as the Pech River Valley.

"The people don't want us up there, but they don't want the Taliban, either," Campbell said. "They want to be left alone."

Gates acknowledged that simply flooding some Afghan districts with U.S. troops, particularly in the east, hasn't always worked. "In some of the areas, the Taliban tries to draw us in because our presence creates opportunities for them," he said.

"The lesson here is you shouldn't generalize about Afghanistan," Gates added. "You really have to take it a district at a time."

Staff writers Ernesto Londono in Kabul and Greg Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.

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