KABUL Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to Afghanistan on Monday, cautioned against over-optimism, warning of "dark days" ahead despite grounds for hope on the battlefield.
Gates, on his first Afghan trip since President Barack Obama's surge of 30,000 troops began arriving in the country last December, said NATO forces had made gains recently, including a push to take control of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah.
"There is still much fighting ahead, and there will assuredly be some dark days. But looking forward there are grounds for optimism," Gates told a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Hours after Gates arrived, militants demonstrated their growing ability to strike inside Afghan cities, with gunmen launching a commando-style raid in the town of Khost near the Pakistani border in the southeast. A Reuters reporter heard a blast and gunfire, and saw smoke rising from the center of town.
Equipped with grenades and an assault rifle, one of the suicide bombers managed to make his way into a disused government building and opened fire on Afghan and U.S. troops in a police compound next door, a local police officer said.
"There were some casualties among the U.S. soldiers which were air-lifted by a helicopter," the police officer, Samkeen Ahmad, told Reuters close to the site of the attack.
He said four Afghan police were wounded. A spokesman for NATO-led forces said five foreign service members were wounded in two explosions but none killed. He said both suicide bombers had blown themselves up inside the buildings.
The Taliban have increasingly used the tactic of commando-style raids, with bombers and gunmen storming government buildings across southern and eastern towns and in Kabul.
"TOUGH TIMES AHEAD"
Before his arrival, Gates cautioned against reading too much into "bits and pieces of good news" on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. He said it was too soon to say whether momentum in the 8-year-old conflict had finally shifted.
"I don't think we should lean too far forward in reading too much into specific, positive developments," he told reporters.
"The early signs are encouraging. But I worry that people will get too impatient and think things are better than they actually are. There are still some tough times ahead."
Controlling expectations is critical for Washington and its allies to maintain support for the war amid rising casualties and costs. Obama has said U.S. forces will begin to draw down in July 2011, although officials stress a military role will continue.
Karzai and General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, updated Gates on the Marjah operation that began last month -- billed as the biggest offensive since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.
He also sought details from McChrystal about his next target: restoring control over Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual home.
McChrystal told reporters troops would mass gradually in Kandahar over the next few months to reassert full control but he said he does not plan an abrupt assault like the one on Marjah.
"Militarily it will not look much like Marjah," McChrystal said. "There won't be a 'D-Day' that is climactic. It will be a rising tide of security as it comes. Slightly ahead of that there needs to be a lot of preparatory work in terms of governance."
Gates said he backed Karzai's plans to convene a peace conference in about six weeks to discuss efforts toward reconciliation with Taliban fighters and their leaders. The conference will be held in late April.
Gates has expressed hope for defections at low levels but voiced skepticism that senior Taliban leaders would be ready to lay down arms as long as they think they could win the war.
"My guess is they're not at that point yet," Gates said before arriving. "I think that more needs to be done. After all, we only have got about 6,000 of the 30,000 troops from the surge into Afghanistan at this point."
The West's focus is on helping to establish the legitimacy of Karzai's government, widely seen at home and abroad as riddled with corruption and incompetence.
Karzai said he will announce new anti-corruption decrees soon and that Western countries should do more to clean up their own aid contracts. Gates also said Washington needed to take better steps to oversee billions of dollars in contracts.
Gates's visit might overlap with one by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iranian media had announced Ahmadinejad would visit Kabul on Monday, but the trip appeared to have been postponed, possibly until later in the week. Iranian and Afghan officials declined to comment on the timing.
Gates said he was concerned Tehran was playing a "double game" in Afghanistan, being friendly to the Afghan government while looking to undermine the United States, but said Iranian support to insurgents was still "relatively low."
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)