We started from a small base the U.S. Army calls Combat Outpost Kowall, and walked along the puddled road between the mud walls of village homes and farms. Curious children came out to see the foreigners. As we approached the square of Tabin village, the call to prayer rang out from a tinny speaker mounted in a tree.
"In this village, we've got 10 vetted and confirmed members of the ALP, the Afghan Local Police, and we've got nine candidates that he's also going to meet here. Those are the candidates that are going through the vetting process," said Colonel David Flynn, one of the senior U.S. officers in the area.
Flynn explained that the army brought security to the village by working closely with the Afghan military, fighting hard against Taliban elements, and establishing a relationship with tribal elders who agreed to allow their young men to join the new local police force.
This is the Argandab Valley, a former insurgent stronghold in Kandahar Province, south of Kabul, part of what is called the Taliban Heartland.
To be sure, there was heavy security for Secretary Gates' visit, with U.S. and Afghan soldiers posted along the way holding automatic rifles, patrols around the perimeter, and likely unseen airborne surveillance aircraft. Still, it was remarkable for the American secretary of defense, a man whose security is guarded nearly as closely as the president's, to be able to stroll into the village square, past armed Afghan troops, and chat with the elders about the Afghan Local Police program.
ELDER: The situation was very bad four months ago, very dangerous here. Then I was elected the malik [mayor] here. And once I was elected, I asked the people to give me people for the ALP program.
GATES: Are the elders satisfied with the way things are going?
TRANSLATOR: Yeah, they said the elders are all happy.
GATES: Good, good.
The operational commander of all coalition forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, came along. He helped plan and manage the Argandab campaign.
"We lost a lot of soldiers there early on. The governor got killed. The police chief was maimed. Now there are police out in the street. And Friday afternoon they [the people] are out picnicking in the river valley. Today, you saw children out. In a place that has no security, the children are never out," Rodriguez said.
Security for ordinary Afghans is a hallmark of the new strategy announced by U.S. President Barack Obama late in 2009 and implemented by his new commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus. The president sent 30,000 additional U.S. troops, and persuaded allied nations to send 10,000 more, to try to make the strategy work. And the coalition trained tens of thousands of additional Afghan troops and police as well.
The idea is to establish and expand security zones, provide services to the people to gain their allegiance, and help the Afghan government and security forces gradually take over the job, so foreign troops can begin a withdrawal this July and end their combat role in 2014. Officials acknowledge that the situation varies from province to province, and often from town to town or even neighborhood to neighborhood. But in this area they claim success, at least for now.
The village visit was the highlight of the defense secretary's two-day trip to Afghanistan, during which he also visited neighboring Helmand Province, where U.S. Marines have been engaged in heavy fighting for months against entrenched Taliban fighters in the Sangin River Valley.
"Before you arrived here, the Taliban were dug in deep. And as the British before you can attest, this district was one of the most dangerous, not just in Afghanistan but maybe in the whole world," he said.
That unit lost 20 Marines in its first few months in the valley, including the son of a three-star general, but officers say the area has been somewhat more stable during the last few months. Gates said the Marines achieved a major strategic breakthrough in Sangin, helping link security zones in Helmand and Kandahar, providing a more normal life for the people of the region, and creating a new, harsh environment for Taliban fighters.
"Alongside your Afghan brothers, you've written a new chapter in the Marine Corps roll of honor, with your sweat and with your blood, against the toughest odds, in the most difficult terrain," he said.
Still, Secretary Gates and senior officers warn that Taliban fighters will try to regain control of the area during the coming warmer months.
Lieutenant Colonel Jason Morris commands the Marines Secretary Gates visited. He says for years under British command his outpost in Sanguin was an "island in a sea of insurgency." In the past several months, his U.S. Marines and others inserted in neighboring areas as part of the surge have changed the situation. But he says the fight is not over.
"We are expecting the violence to pick up in the next couple of weeks. Indicators that we have are that the Taliban, once the vegetation fully comes back on the trees, are going to feel emboldened to carry out their attacks and try and reassert their authority. I would tell you that they're going to have a real hard time doing that," he said.
Secretary Gates agrees, but cautions that the outcome of the nine-year-old Afghan war is still not certain.
"I do feel like the pieces are coming together, but I would continue to say what we have said all along. The gains are fragile and reversible. The fight this spring and this summer is going to be very tough. And that'll really in many respects be the acid test of how effective the progress that we've made is going to be," he said.
It seems as if U.S. officials describe every year, every season, as a crucial test of the Afghan campaign. But this spring and summer that will perhaps be more true than ever.
With all the additional foreign and Afghan troops, the new strategy and initial success in some places, the coming months will demonstrate whether the security gains will hold.
It also will be a chance to see, as foreign troops begin a gradual withdrawal, whether the people will allign with the government or revert to supporting the insurgents, whether the Afghan government and security forces will continue to improve, and ultimately whether officials will be able to stop using the well-worn phrase "fragile and reversible" to describe progress in Afghanistan.