Gates Concedes Kandahar Operation Behind Schedule

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates is wrapping up a 10-day trip around the globe. He reassured some allies about the value of their contribution to the Afghan war — while pressuring others to do more. Gates said he needs to see progress in the war by the end of the year.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos, in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The statements of two top American officials indicate the pressure the United States is under in Afghanistan. It's time pressure. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is meeting U.S. allies around the world. He's been saying he needs to see progress in the war by the end of this year.

His commander in Afghanistan says that's possible, but at the same time, General Stanley McChrystal conceded that a major operation planned in the southern city of Kandahar is behind schedule.

NPR's Rachel Martin is traveling with Secretary Gates, and joins us now from Brussels. Hi, Rachel.

RACHEL MARTIN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And welcome back to NPR, I should say. Can you tell us a little bit more about this operation in Kandahar? Why is it delayed?

MARTIN: Well, General McChrystal said yesterday that his commanders are primarily trying to learn lessons from previous operations. They point mainly to the operation in Marja. You'll recall, it happened a few months ago. And months after the U.S. military had pushed the Taliban out of that area, local citizens are, today, still being threatened and intimidated, and the new local government there is still not in control.

So McChrystal says they want to do things differently. They are trying to be, quote, "deliberate" in Kandahar. They are putting much more planning into this operation. They are also putting a priority on development before military operations. There's a real focus on governance and getting local buy-in to try to gin up more local support. McChrystal says better to get it right than to rush it.

INSKEEP: Well, does all of that mean that there's not really going to be a major military operation in Kandahar?

MARTIN: Well, Kandahar is the spiritual home to the Taliban, but it's not currently held by the Taliban, unlike Marja, which had been under Taliban control for several years. So there will be a military operation, especially outside of Kandahar city, in the more rural parts of the province. But in his first phase, as General McChrystal described it, the focus really is going to be more on getting local leaders onboard, so that any security gains that they do make can be built upon with that support.

INSKEEP: Well, OK. So we heard that Secretary Gates wants to see some progress by the end of the year. Of course, President Obama has talked about troops at least beginning to leave sometime next year. So what kind of progress does General McChrystal have to show in the next few months?

MARTIN: Well, this really is a big date. July 2011 is when commanders are looking to see what kind of progress they've made, in order to start bringing troops out. But even before that date, McChrystal needs to show some progress by December. That's when Gates has said he needs to be able to show the American public that the war is not at a stalemate. So McChrystal says he's confident that this can happen, despite the slower pace in Kandahar. But he emphasizes that Kandahar is not representative of Afghanistan as a whole.

Nevertheless, he has identified some benchmarks for success in the war that he wants to be able to show in December, really tangible things like mobility. Can Afghans drive from city to city without risking their lives? Can they visit their relatives? Can they trade goods across the border?

And they're also going to look at the capability of Afghan security forces. The sooner that Afghan security forces can step up, the sooner that U.S. forces can begin to slowly draw down.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Rachel Martin. She's traveling with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. She's in Brussels, Belgium, and Gates has - spent about 10 days here, going around the world, traveling - as he put it - with his hand out. As you know very well, Rachel Martin, he wants more support for the war in Afghanistan. What kind of support is he getting?

MARTIN: Well, he has resounding this message on virtually every stop of this 10-day tour, asking countries to step up and help fill the gap for trainers. They desperately need about 450 more trainers on the ground to help Afghan security forces get up to snuff. Now, despite all of these requests, he's been getting pushback. NATO officials are struggling to figure out how they can help NATO members with a major budget crises. Europe, right now, has been walloped with the global economic crisis, and individual countries are trying to make serious cuts to their defense budgets. So this request for more trainers comes at a really precarious time.

INSKEEP: Rachel, good to talk with you. Travel safely.

MARTIN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rachel Martin.

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