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Defense Secretary Gauges Success In Afghanistan

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And Im Michele Norris.

And we begin this hour in Afghanistan, where Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived today for an unannounced visit. He is checking progress on the military campaign around the southern Afghan town of Marjah. Its been more than three weeks since the campaign began, with U.S. and Afghan forces making slow progress against the Taliban. In addition to the update, Secretary Gates had another reason for the visit.

As NPRs Mary Louise Kelly reports from Kabul, hes overseeing plans for the next big offensive.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Even before his plane had touched down here in Kabul, reporters traveling with Secretary Gates were asking him whether momentum in the war is starting to shift, given progress in the fight for Marjah. And then I raised the capture in recent days of several top Taliban leaders.

And I hope, of course, that will disrupt their operations on the battlefield. Do you see any indication of that yet? Is there any way to gauge how thats playing out?

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): There are bits and pieces of good news.

KELLY: But Gates was put to caution, lets not get ahead of ourselves. Only 6,000 of the 30,000 additional troops the president has ordered have arrived so far, he said. The rest are still pouring in and there is lots for them to do.

Sec. GATES: There is no doubt, there are positive developments going on. But I would say its very early yet. And I think people still need to understand there are some very hard fighting - very hard days ahead.

KELLY: Gates top commander here, General Stanley McChrystal, agrees that the war hasnt yet reached a decisive turning point. Military operations in Marjah, for example, are ongoing, clearing out all the enemy fighters and the explosive devices they left behind will take months, McChrystal says. But he adds, doing things fast isnt the point.

General STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL (Commander, U.S. Forces, Afghanistan): We couldve taken Marjah in the first night but the amount of damage and the number of casualties wouldve been much, much higher. And, in my view, that wouldve probably left us in a much worse position, maybe in a much, much worse position.

KELLY: Marjah has been billed as the biggest offensive since the war began back in 2001. And General McChrystal and Secretary Gates are already looking to it as a model for an even bigger fight: Kandahar. While Taliban fighters dont technically control the city, Kandahar is their spiritual home. At a briefing today at its headquarters here in Kabul, McChrystal said he expects to build up U.S. and NATO troops in the Kandahar area between now and early summer. He wouldnt be specific about when the offensive might begin. He said unlike Marjah, the fight for Kandahar wont start with a sudden attack.

Gen. MCCHRYSTAL: So, there wont be a D-day that is climactic. It will be a rising tide of security as it comes.

KELLY: McChrystal and Gates hope is that Afghan security forces will increasingly take charge of that rising tide. Gates said as much today at a formal press conference in the palace of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The room was packed and Gates message was phrased politely, but it was there all the same.

Sec. GATES: Long-term success will ultimately be determined by how well the Afghan government, with the support of the international community, can respond to the citizens of Afghanistan and inspire their loyalty.

KELLY: Tomorrow, Gates plans to visit with troops outside Kabul. He says he wants to hear the ground truth about how they think the war effort is going.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.