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

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 10:46 PM

IN KABUL Persistent reminders that U.S. troops remain embroiled in a tough fight greeted Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as he toured eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, days before the Obama administration is scheduled to complete a major review of its war strategy.

A few miles from the Pakistani border, in Konar province, Gates pinned combat medals on a dozen soldiers as U.S. commanders reported a litany of challenges in attempting to secure the area. At another border-region base, in Nangahar province, Gates offered condolences to an Army platoon that suffered six deaths last week when an Afghan police officer opened fire on his U.S. trainers.

"I know you all have had a rough go of it, taken a lot of losses," Gates told soldiers at Forward Operating Base Connolly in Nangahar, not far from the Tora Bora district, where Osama bin Laden narrowly escaped U.S. and Afghan forces nine years ago.

"There's no question being here close to the border means they are in a tough fight," Gates later told reporters.

Gates's visit to Afghanistan came four days after President Obama touched down briefly at Bagram air base to meet with troops, and it coincided with a Marine general's declaration that the battle for the southern Afghan city of Marja is "essentially over."

Next week, the White House is scheduled to finish the first major review of its Afghanistan operations since last December, when Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 additional troops in a bid to halt the spreading Taliban-led insurgency.

"Our sense is that . . . it will note there has been progress," a senior U.S. military official told reporters in Kabul, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss White House deliberations, "but that clearly there is a good deal more work that needs to be done."

Pentagon and White House officials have said that the surge has slowed the Taliban's years-long comeback and that they are encouraged by progress in some areas, particularly in the south. But they also have acknowledged that results have been uneven and that the insurgency has been resilient, despite the massive NATO troop buildup.

One area that Obama administration officials are likely to cite as proof that their strategy is working is Marja and surrounding Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, which was among the first places that the president committed troops after taking office in 2009.

In one of the largest offensives of the war, Marines early this year pushed into the Taliban-dominated city of Marja. Although the initial offensive was hailed as a success, insurgent resistance in the area proved more resilient than senior military officials initially predicted, and efforts at building effective local Afghan government moved forward in fits and starts.

Maj. Gen. Richard Mills told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that the insurgency in Marja today consists of little more than potshots at Marines, a major improvement over the heavy fighting this spring and summer. However, Marines are still facing strong resistance in other areas of Helmand, such as the city of Sangin.

"We believe that we have arrested the momentum of the Taliban in many parts of Afghanistan but not in all," Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces, told reporters before he met with Gates in Kabul. "The Taliban does have still areas in which it has the freedom of movement and arguably the momentum."

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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