- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 8, 2011

COMBAT OUTPOST KOWALL, Afghanistan (AP) — After two days of visiting some of the most hotly contested areas of Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Tuesday he sees reasons to believe the war strategy is working.

“I do feel like the pieces are coming together,” he told reporters at this remote outpost west of the city of Kandahar, where a year ago the Taliban held sway.

The Pentagon chief said he is encouraged by signs of new, firmer connections between the efforts of international military forces, Afghan national police, the Afghan army and newly raised local police forces empowered by village and tribal elders.

After visiting U.S. troops in Sangin, in neighboring Helmand province, Mr. Gates flew here and walked into the village of Tabin. Village elders told him through an interpreter that U.S. and Afghan forces have improved security in recent months. They also expressed hope that a new local police initiative, in which recruits are trained by U.S. troops as a kind of auxiliary police force to protect their own community against the Taliban, will spread to other parts of the Arghandab district.

Mr. Gates told reporters he gained better insight by visiting troops, commanders and Afghan officials. “The closer you get to the fight, the better it looks,” he said.

The second-ranking U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, said in an interview with a group of reporters Tuesday that one reason for optimism, looking ahead, is that the Taliban’s former key strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar provinces are no longer fully in their control.

“That’s no longer their home field,” Gen. Rodriguez said. “They don’t own that like they used to.” The key difference, he said, has been the impact of greatly increased numbers of U.S. and Afghan military forces operating in southern Afghanistan over the past year.

Mr. Gates was wrapping up a two-day visit to gauge war progress as the Obama administration moves toward crucial decisions on reducing U.S. troop levels.

He said Monday that the United States and its allies will be “well positioned” to begin withdrawing forces this July, although he gave no specifics. The withdrawal would continue through 2014, with Afghan forces gradually taking over the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency.

The Pentagon chief said Monday the United States is interested in keeping a military presence in Afghanistan beyond the planned end of combat, but he ruled out permanent military bases.

At a news conference Monday with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Mr. Gates said a team of U.S. officials would arrive here next week to begin negotiations over a new compact for U.S.-Afghan security relations after 2014.

This week’s visit is Mr. Gates‘ 13th trip to Afghanistan, and probably one of his last as defense secretary. He has said he will retire this year but has not given a date.

After Afghanistan, Mr. Gates planned to fly to the Stuttgart, Germany, headquarters of U.S. Africa Command, to attend a ceremony Wednesday marking the arrival of a new commander, Army Gen. Carter Ham.

Mr. Gates will attend a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.



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