U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says high casualties in Afghanistan and slow progress in key areas are making the situation appear worse than it is. Gates and the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, faced questions Wednesday from senators concerned about reports of problems and delays in the operation to assert Afghan government control in Taliban strongholds in the South.
U.S. officials acknowledge that last week, with more than 20 American casualties, was a very bad week in Afghanistan. But Secretary Gates says an increase in casualties was expected as 30,000 more U.S. troops flow into the country and initiate operations in Taliban strongholds like the town of Marja and the city of Kandahar. But he said people should not expect dramatic results this early in the implementation of the new strategy.
"I think frankly that the narrative over the last week or so, possibly because of the higher casualties and other factors has been too negative," said Robert Gates. "I think that we are regaining the initiative. I think that we are making headway."
Admiral Mullen told the senators the effort in the main southern city, Kandahar, a key Taliban stronghold, is entering a new phase. He said military strikes against Taliban facilities and talks with local leaders are giving way to a new focus on putting more Afghan forces into the city and improving security along key roads.
"None of this will be easy," said Admiral Mullen. "None of this will be bloodless, as events last week grimly attest. But all of it will depend heavily on the continued growth and development of competent and well-led Afghan National Security Forces, as well as tangible and achievable political outcomes."
Last week, the U.S. and coalition commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said the Kandahar effort will take longer than he had expected, and officials have acknowledged slow progress in Marja. Admiral Mullen said Wednesday the southern Afghanistan campaign will be very gradual and very tough. He said he shares what he called "the angst" the senators were expressing, but he believes the strategy will succeed. He could not say how long that will take.
Senators expressed frustration with the pace of progress since President Barack Obama announced his revised Afghan strategy in December. But Secretary Gates counseled patience, noting that all the surge forces have not even arrived yet.
"This is not some kind of a production program, or something, where you are going to meet these particular objectives this week and next week," he said. "This is a process. We think we have the right assets. We have the right strategy. We have the right leadership. And most of our allies and partners share our view that things are heading in the right direction and that we will be able to show clear progress and that we are on the right track by the end of this year."
Gates said General McChrystal is confident he will be able to show progress by the end of the year, when the president's next strategy assessment is planned.
In fact, he said there are already discussions about transferring responsibility for some Afghan provinces to the Afghan government fairly soon.
"We're already talking about which ones of those will happen and can we do some of them beginning toward the end of the year or early next year," said Gates. "So as we did province-by-province in Iraq, I suspect that that's the way it will happen in Afghanistan as well."
Gates said that over time he expects the war in Afghanistan will end the way the war in Iraq is ending, with a gradual transition to local responsibility for security and government, and a withdrawal of foreign forces.
President Obama's target date for beginning what is expected to be a slow U.S. withdrawal is July of next year, and Admiral Mullen noted that is more than a year away and said the number of troops that will come out, and exactly where they will come from, will be based on the situation at the time.