LONDON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday he was confident enough battlefield and development gains would be made to allow the Afghans to take over security in parts of the country this winter, before next year’s planned drawdown is supposed to start.
U.S. concerns are growing about allies dropping out of the eight-year-old war. To maintain public support in NATO members-states, Western forces will have to show gains by year-end, Gates said ahead of talks with alliance leaders in Brussels.
Gates predicted “a very tough summer” of growing violence as U.S. forces push deeper into the southern provinces where the Taliban are strongest, but he said success in Afghanistan depended on far more than securing Kandahar and Helmand alone.
“I think it’s important to remember that Kandahar is not Afghanistan,” Gates said in comments that appeared to play down how much the United States has at stake in gaining control of the area, known as the birthplace of the Taliban.
Other top military officials have described the Kandahar operation as make-or-break for the war effort.
U.S. President Barack Obama last year embraced a counter-insurgency strategy to push the Taliban from major population centers.
He is sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan with the goal of starting a gradual drawdown in July 2011, security conditions permitting.
“All of us, for our publics, are going to have to show by the end of the year that our strategy is on the right track and making some headway,” Gates told reporters after talks with British leaders in London. “I don’t think anyone has any illusions that we’ll be done or that there’ll be big victories or something like that.”
But Gates said General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, was “pretty confident that by the end of the year he will be able to point to sufficient progress that validates the strategy and also justifies continuing to work at this.”
Gates concurred with McChrystal’s assessment: “I think there will be measures of effectiveness that he will be able to show by the end of the year.”
Gates did not say what those measures would be.
The United States envisages a gradual campaign in Kandahar to deliver security and governance, as opposed to one big military assault.
Gates said McChrystal was still evaluating options to replace Canadian and Dutch forces who leave, but sought to reassure the British that they would not be asked to fill the void. Gates said most of the additional forces sent in and around Kandahar would be American.
The strategy in Kandahar, Gates said, was to establish security control around the city and then to build up the presence of the Afghan government. He compared the area around Kandahar to the “belts around Baghdad.”
Gates said the long-term goal was to create what he called a “non-Taliban” government in Kabul, though he did not rule out the Taliban being part of the political process or participating in a future governing coalition.
In March, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, described Kandahar as Afghanistan’s “center of gravity” and the key to reversing the Taliban’s momentum this year, Obama’s goal when he ordered the troop surge in December.
But Gates on Wednesday made clear he believed Kandahar was one part of the equation.
“Kandahar and Helmand are important but they are not the only provinces in Afghanistan that matter in terms of the outcome of this struggle,” he said.
Gates said the transition to greater Afghan control would begin in areas where not only security has improved but where gains have been made in “civil governance, the ability to deliver some measure of a rule of law and government services to people.”
“The ground has to be ready on both the civilian and the military sides to begin the transition process,” Gates said. “I am pretty confident that we will, in fact, be able to begin that process sometime this coming winter in various parts of Afghanistan.”
Many U.S. officials see Afghan President Hamid Karzai as the weak link in Obama’s strategy, citing his reluctance to tackle rampant corruption. But Gates said: “We have confidence in him.”
Editing by Matthew Jones