U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to southern Afghanistan, the heartland of the insurgency, Tuesday where he met with local villagers and U.S. troops. Gates said the coming months will provide a key test of recent gains made by U.S. and Afghan forces.
On the second day of his visit to Afghanistan, Gates flew from Kabul to Helmand Province's Sangin District to tell U.S. Marines they have made a ?major strategic breakthrough? in what he said was once ?the most dangerous place on earth.?
From there, he flew to neighboring Kandahar, where he walked down a local road, past waving children, to meet with local elders and members of the newly established Afghan local police. Later, at an American combat outpost, he told reporters he was ?very encouraged? by what he had seen.
?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. We expect the Taliban to try and take back much of what they've lost. And that'll really, in many respects, be the acid test of how effective the progress we have made is going to be,? said Gates.
Gates said if U.S. and Afghan forces can sustain the gains during the coming warmer months, the traditional fighting season, it will send what he called ?a powerful message.?
Military officers say they face a tough challenge in Afghanistan as the weather improves and Taliban insurgents return from neighboring Pakistan to find their fighters dead or captured, and their former strongholds under Afghan and coalition control. Officials expect an increase in militant attacks against local security forces and government officials.
Gates said these former Taliban strongholds in the south will continue to need a strong coalition presence, but that the planned transition to Afghan security control can begin taking place elsewhere in Afghanistan in July.
?Beginning a gradual process that is based on conditions on the ground, that probably won't be here in the south or the southwest to start, probably is doable,? he said.
Gates said NATO's decision to continue combat operations for up to another four years helped convince many Afghans to come over to the government side and stop supporting the Taliban. Military officers say they have received an increase in tips from Afghans about insurgent bombs and weapons caches, and they hope this information will also help them fight the expected Taliban counterattack in the coming weeks.