War Report Touts Progress In South Afghanistan

The Obama administration released its review of the Afghan war strategy Thursday. The administration pointed to military gains against the Taliban and al-Qaida. But the report acknowledges problems, including the ability of insurgents to escape the fighting in safe havens inside Pakistan.

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DON GONYEA, host:

We turn now, to NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, we just heard Mr. Ruggiero, Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered a similar assessment of things yesterday. You were recently in those southern provinces yourself, in Kandahar and Helmand, do you share their assessment of things?

TOM BOWMAN: Well Don, I would say it appears that theyve halted Taliban momentum in the south, but it's too early to say whether it's been reversed.

Now, the top General in the south, British Major General Nick Carter, who just left Afghanistan, said we really won't know until the spring, whether this surge in troops has worked or not. What's unknown is how many Taliban will come back and start fighting in the spring.

Now the problem is, as the Americans swept in with their helicopter operations and then set up combat outposts, the Taliban essentially scattered into the villages in southern Afghanistan. They dropped their weapons and picked up a shovel.

GONYEA: So, you say they scattered into the villages there, what about crossing the border into Pakistan.

BOWMAN: Absolutely, cross the border into Pakistan. I was with 101st Airborne, just outside of Kandahar. And they were hit by a suicide bomber, who killed two soldiers, wounded three others. And they found out that this Taliban suicide bombing cell operated just across the border in Pakistan.

GONYEA: Okay, Secretary Gates was at the White House yesterday, and he talked to reporters and he discussed the quality of Afghan forces.

Secretary GATES: Afghan troops are already responsible for security in Kabul, and are increasingly taking the lead in Kandahar, where they make up more than 60 percent of the fighting forces.

GONYEA: Okay, Tom. How do you sense the Afghan forces are doing?

BOWMAN: Well, I don't think anybody I was with thinks they're in the lead. The American Marines and soldiers I was with, they are leading the operations these helicopter-borne operations. They're setting up the combat outposts, they are destroying the IEDs. And at best, the Afghan forces are junior partners. And I mentioned I was with the 101st Airborne, they were with a company of Afghan soldiers, about 120 or so. Eighty of those 120 so two thirds of that company just walked away. They just deserted. And those soldiers who were left were very, very green troops, who really weren't doing much at all basically standing around as the Americans were going on patrols or destroying IEDs.

GONYEA: And this is no small point, because until the Afghan forces are ready really ready the U.S. forces will find it hard to leave.

BOWMAN: Absolutely. President Obama says some troops will start coming home in July 2011. People I talk with on the ground say they don't expect many troops to come out at that point. The Americans and the NATO allies have essentially kicked this can down the road to 2014, when they say the Afghan forces will take over. But I think, even at that point, you'll need a lot more American and NATO soldiers to work as trainers and logistics and supply people, and so forth.

GONYEA: All right. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Don.

GONYEA: NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman.

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