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Secretary Gates sees progress in Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Karen Parrish
  • American Forces Press Service
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said March 8 that he finds conditions here "very encouraging," as he ended his second full day of high-level meetings, troop visits and commander briefings in Afghanistan.

Secretary Gates spoke to reporters at this outpost in the Arghandab district of southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province after walking through the nearby village of Tabin and meeting with elders, district officials and the new crop of Afghan local police taking shape in the village.

Secretary Gates said one encouraging security indicator he's seen on this trip is the increased integration in planning and operations between U.S. and coalition forces and their Afghan army and police counterparts.

Another reason for "cautious optimism," he added, is the growing evidence of Afghan cooperation across governmental levels and agencies, as demonstrated in the Afghan local police program.

The local police program, as U.S. officers involved with the program in Tabin and other districts explained, involves the interior ministry, the Afghan National Police, district police chiefs and village elders in a system designed to recruit, certify, train, equip and monitor local police forces that are empowered to act only in their own villages.

Secretary Gates met with village and district government representatives in Tabin today, and said he was encouraged by the sense of pride village elders displayed at having their own residents contribute to their protection.

"It's encouraging on the ground," he said. "It's been encouraging watching it from Washington, but ... as you've heard me say before, I think the closer you are to this fight, the better it looks."

During another stop, Secretary Gates said, he learned the provincial governor had authorized a district governor in his province to hire a deputy and a couple of staff members.

"Even in that small area, they're beginning to see Afghan civilian leadership (expand)," Secretary Gates said. "The district governor, apparently, is a very good man, but was all by himself until fairly recently."

The secretary said he believes the pieces are coming together in Afghanistan, but that the gains still are reversible.

"The fight this spring and this summer is going to be very tough," he said. "We expect the Taliban to try and take back much of what they've lost. That will really, in many respects, be the acid test of how effective the progress we've made is going to be."

If coalition and Afghan forces can sustain the gains they've made and expand them further, Secretary Gates said, "I think it will be a powerful message."