By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 5:53 PM
KABUL - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that progress in the war in Afghanistan has "exceeded my expectations," giving a strong endorsement of the U.S. approach days before the White House is scheduled to complete a major review of its strategy.
Gates gave his assessment on the second day of a visit to Afghanistan that included stops at several U.S. military bases and a meeting with President Hamid Karzai.
"I will go back convinced that our strategy is working," he said at a news conference with Karzai. "The bottom line is that over the last 12 months we've come a long way. . . . 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."
Next week, the White House is scheduled to finish the first major review of its Afghan strategy since last December, when President Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 additional troops to try to halt the spreading Taliban-led insurgency.
U.S. officials have said that the review is not expected to result in major policy changes, but Gates's comments were perhaps the most optimistic yet to come from the Obama administration. In comparison, recent status reports on the war given to Congress by the White House and the Pentagon have been more cautious and critical.
Since his arrival in Afghanistan on Tuesday, Gates has received mixed reports from U.S. commanders during his visits to military bases. In the east, near the border with Pakistan, military leaders said the insurgency is still gathering strength in some key districts. In the south, where the bulk of the troops from the surge have been deployed, commanders were more upbeat.
In Kandahar province, the Taliban's birthplace and historical stronghold in southeast Afghanistan, Col. Art Kandarian, a brigade commander with the 101st Airborne Division, said his troops have seen a large drop in roadside bomb attacks along Route 1, the nation's most important highway. Although his forces are still meeting resistance, he said, "we have now cleared and held a great deal of insurgent-held territory that the insurgents have never lost in."
Military officials said they are coming closer to their goal of connecting secure territory in Kandahar with neighboring Helmand province, another former Taliban base where Marines deployed last year.
U.S. military officials are showcasing gains in southern Afghanistan as evidence that they are turning the tide in the war. But even as they tout those successes, they are careful not to raise expectations that they will be able to withdraw large numbers of troops next summer, when Obama has said he would start to reverse the surge.
Instead, U.S. officials have sought to emphasize a different date: 2014, which is when NATO and Karzai have said they expect that Afghan forces will be able to take lead responsibility for security throughout the country.
In Helmand province, where the Marines arrived in force 18 months ago, Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in southwestern Afghanistan, said his forces have gradually pulled back to the fringes of many stabilized districts and are letting Afghan police and soldiers patrol those areas. In many parts of the province, he said, "things are progressing along at a very steady and satisfactory rate."
When asked if Marines could start withdrawing from Helmand next summer and return home, however, Mills was noncommittal. "My job is to set the conditions for transition," he said. "I don't set timetables. That's not my job."
He described the handover of responsibility to Afghan forces "as a very subtle process in which they begin to assume more and more responsibilities." He added: "I don't think it will be a very dramatic moment in time."
Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the deputy commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said U.S. troops are already thinning out in areas across the country that have stabilized and are being "reinvested" in other districts that need more help. "We want to make sure that it's irreversible, so we're going to do it at a deliberate pace," he said.
He said commanders have not begun to consider where or how the July withdrawal will begin.
"It remains to be seen," he said during a visit with Gates to Forward Operating Base Howz-e-Madad in Kandahar province. "Three months ahead of time, we'll be fine to make that decision."
Gates and Karzai were all smiles after their meeting in the Afghan presidential palace, despite the recent leak of diplomatic cables in which U.S. officials portrayed Karzai as an erratic, unreliable ally.
Cables made public by the Web site WikiLeaks, Gates said, were "extraordinarily embarrassing for the United States." The normally reserved defense secretary heaped praise on Karzai for reacting in "an extraordinarily statesmanlike way," adding, "Frankly, I think the American government will not forget this kind of statesmanlike response."