Tuesday, March 9, 2010

FORWARD OPERATING BASE FRONTENAC, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a hard-hit battle unit Tuesday that its heavy losses have helped the U.S. begin to push back against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

Gates visited a small, remote outpost 30 miles north of Kandahar, where the Fort Lewis, Washington-based Stryker unit has lost 22 men and suffered an additional 62 wounded since arriving here last summer.

The latest injuries came Monday night, and the latest death three days ago.

“You all have had a very tough time,” especially at the start of the tour, Gates told members of the 800-soldier unit. “You came into an area totally controlled by the Taliban. You fought for a critical battle space, you bled for it and now you own it.”

He told the troops that as the fight shifts toward securing Kandahar itself later this year, they will again be “at the tip of the spear.”

Brigade commander Lt. Col. Jonathan Neumann explained one of its missions: securing a highway that locals use to bring crops to market in Kandahar.

“If people can’t move freely on the highway,” Neumann said, “they’ll never feel connected to their government and like they are out from under the thumb of the Taliban.”

Neumann said his troops also protect the local population from bandits and extortionists who try to waylay travelers and exact illegal tolls.

He said it can be hard to measure success when it means subtle changes of heart and intention among the locals instead of something dramatic, like taking a city.

“The metric that stares you in the face is our casualties,” Neumann said.

Gates later walked a dusty street in Now Zad, where Marines pushed out the Taliban last year with help from some of the first reinforcements ordered by President Barack Obama last year.

The Pentagon chief stopped to speak to shopkeepers who are among about 2,500 people who have returned to the city. Now Zad, once the second largest city in Helmand province, sat empty for four years, save for U.S., NATO and Taliban fighters.

“This place was a ghost town, a no-go zone,” Gates said as he thanked Marines for an operation that served as a model for this year’s battle in nearby Marjah.

Gates flew to Kandahar early Tuesday for meetings with U.S. and British generals overseeing the military campaign in Marjah. He presented Silver Stars for valor to two Army aviators before his visits with U.S. forces at bases elsewhere in the south.

On Monday, the Pentagon chief said the progress made in the Marjah offensive, launched last month, is encouraging, but he stopped short of saying the war is at a turning point. The Marjah campaign routed most Taliban fighters from a town they once controlled, without a high casualty toll for U.S. troops and the Afghan security forces fighting alongside them.

“People still need to understand there is some very hard fighting, very hard days ahead,” Gates told reporters.

Gates met Monday in Kabul with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. McChrystal said preparations have begun for a crucial campaign to assert Afghan government control over Kandahar, spiritual home of the Taliban.

Gates traveled to Afghanistan to check on the progress of the war’s expansion, directed late last year by Obama.

Most of the 30,000 additional U.S. forces Obama ordered will be in place by summer. Without being specific, McChrystal suggested that any heavy fighting in Kandahar will wait until more U.S. and NATO troops are ready.

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