RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
President Obama's administration is not quite ready to offer an assessment of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. But as Defense Secretary Robert Gates travels in the country this week, he's giving an opinion that will surely inform his judgment.
MONTAGNE: After talking with troops and commanders, Gates contends the U.S. strategy is succeeding. The U.S. is trying to start getting troops out next year and more of that finished by 2014.
NPR's Rachel Martin is traveling with Secretary Gates.
RACHEL MARTIN: For months, Secretary Gates and top U.S. military officials have parsed their words carefully when talking about how things are going in Afghanistan - slow and steady progress, they said, signs of improvement. Now Gates has made it clear.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): And I will go back convinced that our strategy is working and that we will be able to achieve the key goals laid out by President Obama last year.
MARTIN: He made the remarks during a press conference yesterday in Kabul.
Sec. GATES: The bottom line is that in last 12 months we've come a long way -frankly, progress that even just in the last few months has exceeded my expectations. The Taliban control far less territory than they did when I spoke here one year ago. And as a result, more and more Afghan people are able to live without being terrorized.
MARTIN: That is just the first step. The next goal is getting Afghan forces to take responsibility for providing security one province at a time, and ultimately for the Afghans to take full control of the security situation by the end of 2014. At least that's what they hope Afghan security forces can do.
Colonel ART KANDARIAN (U.S. Army): They're never going to be the United States Army and they never have to be, but they stand they stand with us and they are at everyone of our patrol bases and strong points and outposts. They're - I mean, we're winning each fight.
MARTIN: Colonel Art Kandarian leads U.S. troops in two of the districts in Kandahar that have been the focal point of U.S. combat operations in the past few months. He says they've pushed insurgents away from the cities where most Afghans live and further out into the desert and mountains where they're less effective. Secretary Gates spoke to those troops members of the 101st Airborne - at their forward operating base.
Sec. GATES: You have taken new territory, cleared it, secured it, and held it. This is a critical part of our strategy and of the current campaign, and you have been enormously successful.
MARTIN: President Obama has said he wants to start pulling some troops like these out of Afghanistan this summer. Now that Gates has declared that the current strategy is working, the question is what such an endorsement means for operations on the ground. One top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said that, quote, remains to be seen, essentially that the only thing concrete about this war is that it's fluid. And troops have to adapt all the time.
Again, Colonel Kandarian.
Col. KANDARIAN: I wouldn't say that my clearing is done. We remain on the offense while building our defense.
MARTIN: It's the same story the next province over in Helmand. The Marines there have been in heavy fighting for the past year. And here too the question is when Afghan forces will be ready to take over the fight.
Here's Major General Richard Mills, the commanding officer in Helmand.
Major General RICHARD MILLS (U.S. Marine Corps): When we see they're ready to shoulder it, we've got to move off to the side. I don't think it's going to be a dramatic moment in time. I would much rather have someone wake up one morning and look around and say, gee, didn't the Marines used to hang around here?
MARTIN: Most military officials agree that with at least four more years of combat operations likely - that moment is still a long ways off.
Rachel Martin, NPR News, Kabul.
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