U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates came away from a 40-hour visit to Afghanistan Friday encouraged that the U.S. troop increase and cooperation from Afghans will turn the tide of the eight-year conflict. But he says the Afghan government needs to do a better job of convincing the Afghan people that the Taliban is their enemy, not U.S. forces.
In a spectacular setting, with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop, Secretary Gates sat under a camouflage canopy and spoke with local Afghan officials.
Ali Abbas, is head of a new group of local citizens armed by the Afghan government and paid by the United States to guard their own district, Jalreyz, in Wardak Province. He says the Afghan Public Protection Force program, the first of its kind in the country, has already improved security in the area in the few weeks since its 240 members finished a three-week training program led by the Afghan Police and U.S. troops. Abbas says the program should be extended to the entire country.
The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, says the program's strength is that it is connected to the local people through their district councils, and also to the national government through the police command structure. And he says it provides a strategic edge in the effort by the coalition and the Afghan government to fight Taliban influence, particularly in the south.
"The insurgent leadership is faced with a real dilemma. If they go in and attack these people, these guardians, they're attacking the sons of that village. That's a little different than attacking the police or the army or international forces," he said.
The Afghan Public Protection Force is loosely modeled after a successful community policing program in Iraq. Secretary Gates says the Friday morning meeting with Abbas and other local officials gave him hope that the additional U.S. forces already flowing into Afghanistan will find local support if they are able to turn the tide against the Taliban.
"Actually, the conversations I had this morning were some of the most encouraging I've had about the commitment of Afghans to not only preserve what they have in the way of freedom and democracy, but they want security, they want jobs. They want a different life. They don't like the Taliban. They don't like what the Taliban brings. And we've just got to help them keep these guys at bay, and ultimately defeat them," he said.
The effort to do that is getting a boost from more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops in the coming months, and most of them will go into south, where the Taliban is the strongest and the coalition presence has been the smallest. The U.S. and NATO commander in the region is Brigadier General John Nicholson.
"To me, to see this increase in U.S. forces means we are now resourcing our counterinsurgency appropriately to accomplish what it is that we've laid out in our strategy," he said.
But General Nicholson warns the situation will get worse before it gets better.
"There'll be an increase in violence initially, because the enemy will not easily give up their hold on the population. But this will be a spike, not a continuous upward slope. So there will be an increase, then a decrease, in violence, after which we'll have improved security. And then into those secured areas we'll be able to introduce development and work with the Afghans on improved governance," he said.
One of the keys to the success of the new U.S. strategy, approved by President Barack Obama a month ago, is gaining the trust and support of the Afghan people. That effort suffered a setback this week, as local residents in western Afghanistan blamed a U.S. air strike for what they said were more than 100 civilian deaths. The United States disputes the claim, and says Taliban forces often exaggerate civilian casualties, or even kill civilians themselves and blame it on U.S. forces. But Secretary Gates says it is not enough for U.S. officials to make such statements.
"What I think is most important is not necessarily what we say but what the Afghan government says, because they are likely to have more credibility with their own people," he said.
Especially with the presidential election coming up, whenever there have been civilian casualties Afghan officials have been quick to criticize U.S. forces for not doing enough to protect civilians.
Officials say it is important to build support among the people in order to reduce the Taliban's access to support and shelter. They say that, and further improvements by the Afghan government and security forces, are the keys to long-term stability.
And General McKiernan, the top commander, says achieving all that will require a long-term security commitment by the United States, and by its allies.
"This is not a temporary increase for the next six months to a year. I think this is going to have to be sustained over the next, you said two or three years. I think that's a reasonable assumption that it would be at least the next two or three years," he said.
And officials say the commitment for civilian help will be even longer.
Secretary Gates says even though this has already been a long and difficult fight, the United States and its allies must continue the effort.
"If there is a lesson for Americans and the international community, it's that we don't dare turn our backs on Afghanistan. This will work if we stay engaged and have patience," he said.
It has long been a challenge to convince people in many NATO countries of that. Even now, with the Afghan presidential election set for August, the alliance is several thousand troops short of the force it promised to help secure the voting.
But there was no talk of that during Friday's outdoor meeting, at least not while reporters were allowed to listen.
In the crisp morning air, Ali Abbas told Secretary Gates the new Afghan Public Protection Force has great potential because, he said, it is connected to the people "like a chain" and its members know what is really happening in their hometowns. That gave the secretary reason to smile, as he contemplated the long, difficult road ahead.