By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
June 24, 2010 - Although it has come more slowly than expected, progress is, nonetheless, being made in Afghanistan, the top Defense Department civilian and military officials said today.
"I do not believe we are bogged down," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. "I believe we are making some progress. It is slower and harder than we anticipated. I think we are moving forward."
Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took questions from reporters in a Pentagon news conference. They expressed support for President Barack Obama's strategy in Afghanistan and confidence in his decision to nominate Army Gen. David H. Petraeus to command U.S. and international forces there.
Though Petraeus will be given an opportunity to assess the situation in Afghanistan, assuming he's confirmed by the Senate, Gates said, the strategy there has not changed, and the chairman agreed.
"The strategy hasn't changed in any way," Mullen said. "Nor has the policy."
Mullen explained that the strategy and troop increase Obama announced in December still is in its early stages. About one-third of the 30,000 additional troops the president approved have yet to deploy there, he noted.
Most of the surge troops who have arrived are operating in Marja, a former Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province. Success there is evident, the admiral said, as markets, schools and governance are under way there. Such freedoms had not been available there for more than eight years, he added.
Offensive operations in Kandahar, however, are kicking off slower than predicted, Mullen acknowledged. U.S. forces, he said, are still conducting "shaping" operations in Kandahar ahead of a planned offensive.
"We haven't put off the operations in Kandahar," Mullen said. "It's an enormously complex operation. We need to make sure we get the forces there to execute. A significant part of this last 10,000 [troops] will be included in that."
Operations in Marja and Kandahar are classic counterinsurgency operations, and they must be developed and executed carefully to sustain gains against the Taliban, Mullen said. Success in Kandahar, particularly, is vital to the overall success of the strategy, he added.
Earlier today, Mullen spoke to a group of political staffers, defense industry officials and reporters at The Hill newspaper's annual Tribute to the Troops breakfast, where he noted Kandahar's importance.
"Kandahar is really the center of gravity for how we move forward with this strategy," he said. "I believe as goes Kandahar, so goes Afghanistan.
"This is a tough, tough time," he continued. "There's certainly a desire to get specific timelines, but I think they're very difficult to pin down. It's an extraordinary, complex challenge. It's not just about security; it's about governance [and] getting at corruption."
Operations have been hindered by challenges in Kandahar, Mullen acknowledged, but it's much too soon to determine the level of success there, he said.
"It is exceptionally well planned," Mullen said. "It is an operation that has been discussed at great length with [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai, [and] both the Afghan leadership as well as the [NATO] and coalition leaderships are very much committed."