The top U.S. military officer toured Kandahar, Afghanistan's main southern city and the birthplace of the Taliban, and he told four local leaders who came to meet him on a NATO military base that after eight years of war they need to be patient a little longer.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, set out from the fortified Kandahar Air Field in an armored vehicle to see for himself efforts to improve security in the city. What he saw was a largely quiet neighborhood, where the biggest threat is stone-throwing boys. The tough fight with insurgents, who plant roadside bombs and attack security stations, is on the outskirts of the city.
Mullen stopped at a police station, where American forces train Afghan police as part of the effort to gradually squeeze out Taliban fighters and their leaders.
Standing at attention in their blue uniforms in two neat rows in 40-degree celsius heat under a blazing sun, the Afghan policemen gave the admiral a welcome cheer. Then he thanked them for their efforts and talked about the challenges ahead.
"The challenge over the next many months with respect to change and security, and jobs and good governance for Kandahar is significant," he said.
Such non-military issues also dominated the admiral's meeting with the community elders, but one asked a pointed question about the impact of the troop surge, with thousands pouring into this area.
"So, are you bringing security here or are you bringing violence," asked one elder.
Admiral Mullen said the U.S.-led coalition is bringing security, but he acknowledged that more troops conducting more operations, and more Afghan soldiers and policemen on the job, means more violence in the short term.
"We recognize that additional forces cause additional violence," he said. "This is part of a counter-insurgency strategy. We think we can get through that. The violence will go down."
Another elder complained the only thing that has changed since his last meeting with Admiral Mullen a year ago has been the spike in allied operations, and that was the one thing the elders did not want. The man said security is getting worse every day.
Reporters were not allowed to identify or photograph the turban-clad elders for fear the Taliban could retaliate against them for meeting with Admiral Mullen.
A third elder spoke passionately about the lack of support he gets from the Afghan government.
"He says the problem here in this country is there just is not administration that is effective," he said. "That is all."
The grievances raised by these men, who are relatively friendly to the United States and the NATO coalition, also included the lack of jobs, night raids by NATO troops, government corruption they said funnels foreign aid to the Taliban and the slow and ineffective Afghan justice system.
And they argued with Admiral Mullen when he said Pakistan wants a stable, peaceful Afghanistan.
Admiral Mullen said their complaints are justified, but fixing the problems will take time.
"I wish I could throw a switch and it would be over tomorrow and it would be good," he said. "I cannot. The United States cannot. Forty-six other countries cannot."
Admiral Mullen also told the elders not to worry about the July, 2011 date President Barack Obama has set for the beginning of a U.S. troop withdrawal. He told them, as he has said throughout his five-day visit to South and Central Asia, the withdrawal will be slow and tied to local conditions, and the U.S. commitment to stabilize Afghanistan will last far beyond that date.