By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 18, 2010 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates cited progress in areas of southern Afghanistan as evidence that the new U.S. strategy is making an impact. "It is proving the principles that underpin Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal's campaign are in fact the correct ones and are working," Gates said told reporters traveling with him to India. McChrystal is the senior U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, who oversees U.S. and International Security Assistance Force members there.
While conceding it is too early to talk about success in southern Afghanistan, Gates said "people are heartened" by initial signs of the Marines' progress in Helmand province. "I would say there has been real satisfaction with the progress they have made there," he said.
"I don't think anyone is prepared to go too far in talking about success down there," he said. "It is early yet."
But he pointed to progress in Nawa as an example of what is hoped will spread to broader areas of the country as more U.S. and ISAF troops arrive and begin operations.
Of the additional 30,000 U.S. forces being sent to Afghanistan, 92 percent are to be in place by late August. Some will go a bit later, such as a 1,000-troop headquarters element slated to assume command of Regional Command South in November, Gates noted.
"But in terms of combat forces, my estimation is that we will have virtually all of them in place" by late August, he said.
Although he hasn't yet seen details of the Afghan program to reconcile with and integrate its former enemies, Gates said the United States has long believed these efforts to be critical to resolving the conflict.
Reconciliation involves incentives to bring former Taliban militants back into Afghan society, in exchange for allegiance to the Afghan government.
"Reconciliation has to be a part of the ultimate conclusion," Gates aid.
However, he said he would be "very surprised" to see that effort extended to senior Taliban leaders such as Mullah Omar – at least for now.
"I think it is our view that until the Taliban leadership sees a change in the momentum and sees that they are not going to win, that the likelihood of significant reconciliation at the senior levels is not terribly great," he said.
The secretary said he believes the best opportunity for reintegration to take root is at the local, district and provincial levels. It could succeed there, he said, once former Taliban fighters "know that if they integrate [and] accept the terms of the Afghan government, that they and their families can be protected," he said.
"That is the key in terms of the success of the reintegration."