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Pentagon Claims Afghan Strategy Working Despite Problems

Official says progress is beginning to prove validity of President Barack Obama's strategy for defeating Taliban

The Pentagon claimed Thursday that progress in some areas of Afghanistan is beginning to prove the validity of President Barack Obama's strategy for defeating the Taliban and related groups. The claim came after Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed concern that news reports from southern Afghanistan, where the effort has run into significant challenges, are painting a more negative picture than is justified.

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell acknowledges that the situation in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar has been difficult, with slower progress than had been expected. But he says the fact that there has been some progress in ousting the Taliban, improving security and beginning to help the Afghan government assert its authority in several towns is significant.

"I think we are beginning to see a proof of concept in some areas. The areas where our strategy has been employed the longest have improved the most," he said.

Morrell told a news conference the Taliban's momentum in Northern Afghanistan has been reversed, and there has been progress in several towns in the West and in the difficult Eastern region, where insurgents can easily seek refuge across the Pakistani border. Even in the South, where journalists traveling with American forces have reported on distrust among local residents, attacks by tenacious Taliban units and other problems, Morrell says the U.S. Marines have been expanding security in a series of towns.

"What they are effectively doing is creating a contiguous zone of security where farmers can move, people doing commerce can move freely, and business can be done, people can go to school. Now, we're far from perfect. We got a long way to go in each of those places. But this notion that there has not been progress made is an erroneous one," Morrel said.

Morrell included the major town of Marja in his list of improved areas, even though he acknowledged "there is still too much intimidation" by Taliban forces there. He also said that in spite of some high-profile attacks, there have been improvements in security in the capital, Kabul.

Experts say it is normal to have an uneven mosaic of progress and problems in a counterinsurgency campaign.

Officials have acknowledged slower-than-expected progress in Kandahar City, a key Taliban stronghold, and have also said success in the city is essential for success overall in Afghanistan. On Wednesday at a Senate hearing, Secretary Gates appealed for patience, noting that the new strategy has only been in place for a few months and all the troops needed to implement it have not yet arrived.

In answer to a reporter's question Thursday, Morrell echoed the secretary's call for people to give the strategy a chance to work. "Ultimately, Steve, it's up to us to prove it conclusively, and we're perfectly prepared to do that. We just want to make sure that the time is provided to do it," he said.

Morrell and other officials note that the president's next strategy review is six months away, and his deadline for starting what is expected to be a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is more than a year away. Officials say they expect to be able to prove more conclusively that their strategy is working by the end of this year, and to meet the president's deadline in July of next year.