WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Debate over the U.S. war strategy in Afghanistan is exposing what some see as discord within the Pentagon about how to cast the fight for Kandahar and the extent and pace to which progress can be shown.
The apparent mixed messages come at a sensitive moment for the Pentagon, where some worry that a wave of negativity is undercutting public support for President Barack Obama's strategy before it gets fully underway.
At a news conference on Thursday, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell brushed aside suggestions of divisions within the military over strategy.
Any gap between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, over the strategic importance of securing Kandahar was "rhetorical" rather than "substantive," Morrell said.
Obama decided in December to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan as part of a revised strategy that puts a focus on securing Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace, to try to turn the tide in the nearly nine-year-old war.
Mullen told Congress this week the campaign for the southern city of Kandahar was make-or-break for the overall war effort, saying: "As goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan."
Similar comments by Mullen in March surprised some Pentagon officials, who thought he was raising the stakes too high by portraying Kandahar as a game-changer.
In comparison, Gates has sought in recent statements to play down suggestions that the entire war effort hinged on Kandahar, telling reporters last week in Brussels: "I think it's important to remember that Kandahar is not Afghanistan."
Gates said Kandahar and neighboring Helmand were important but were "not the only provinces that matter in terms of the outcome of this struggle."
Messages within the Pentagon have also varied over how soon it will be clear whether the new counterinsurgency strategy can ensure success or should be modified.
Gates has stressed it is critical to show progress by year-end, when the White House will review the war effort, and that he believed that was an achievable goal.
And in congressional testimony this week, Mullen said it would be clear by year-end "where we are with respect to reversing the momentum."
Still, some top military officials have said privately they doubt they will really know if the war strategy is working until next summer, around the time Obama plans to begin a troop withdrawal, conditions permitting.
General David Petraeus, who oversees the Afghan campaign as head of U.S. Central Command, initially appeared this week to qualify his support for Obama's July 2011 date to start a gradual withdrawal, telling lawmakers: "In a perfect world ... we have to be very careful with timelines."
The next day Petraeus put himself more squarely behind the timeline.
While Gates voiced confidence a transition to greater Afghan control would begin in parts of the country this coming winter, General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, was more cautious, saying only that it should begin in the next year.
Underscoring the importance the Pentagon places on public perception, Gates pushed back at tough questions from lawmakers about the strategy, saying: "I think frankly the narrative ... has been too negative."
Some Pentagon officials have expressed concern about bleak accounts by journalists on the front-lines in southern Afghanistan. Morrell also singled out "talking heads" on television and members of Congress for their questioning.
An excessive focus on violence and setbacks in southern Afghanistan ignored improvements there and in the rest of the country, the Pentagon press secretary said.
"There is a wider picture here that at least recently has been overtaken, overshadowed by the intense focus on Helmand and Kandahar," Morrell said.
Morrell said Gates was not trying to diminish the "importance of Kandahar to the ultimate success of the Afghan operation," but wanted to put it in perspective, disputing comparisons to the campaign to secure Iraq's capital, Baghdad.
Asked whether the United States could succeed in Afghanistan without succeeding in Kandahar, Morrell said: "I think Kandahar is essential to the ultimate success of the operations in Afghanistan."
"Ultimately, it's up to us to prove (progress) conclusively. And we're perfectly prepared to do that. We just want to make sure that the time is provided to do it," Morrell said.
Editing by Todd Eastham