BRUSSELS, (Reuters) – NATO warned on Friday that success was not yet assured in the fight against a tough Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and Washington acknowledged that progress in its counter-insurgency strategy was tentative.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, had told alliance ministers meeting in Brussels that he was confident he would be able to show progress by the end of the year. However, Gates told a news conference that ministers also realised the road ahead would be “long and hard”. “No one would deny that signs of progress are tentative at this point, that they are almost anecdotal,” he told reporters. “Progress is being made, slowly, but steadily and sustainably … These gains will not come quickly or without high cost.”
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the meeting the Taliban were putting up “fierce resistance” in their heartlands of Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south.
A statement by the ministers spoke of “measured progress” in extending the reach of the Afghan government and marginalising the insurgency, but added: “Significant challenges remain, and success is not yet assured.”
Rasmussen said NATO needed to step up its training effort to allow the start of a handover of security responsibility to Afghan forces, hopefully by the end of the year. But he stressed that NATO’s commitment would be long term. “There will be many difficult days ahead but a stable, sovereign Afghanistan means a safer world for all of us and we will do what is necessary for as long as necessary to make it happen,” he said.
The sober assessment of the difficulties facing a mission now involving more than 122,000 foreign troops and worsening casualties came after McChrystal said a long-awaited campaign in the Taliban’s birthplace of Kandahar would unfold more slowly than originally planned.
Citing shortcomings that set back the last big U.S.-led offensive in neighbouring Helmand, McChrystal said on Thursday he wanted more time to shore up Afghan support for the campaign in Kandahar and to prepare local authorities to provide services when security improves.
The decision to move more slowly on what has been billed as the biggest operation of the nearly nine-year-old war adds to doubt about what can be achieved by this year’s end, when the White House is holding a review and demanding signs of progress.
Gates said gains would need to be seen by then in order to maintain public support for the war in NATO countries, which has eroded as the death toll has risen. At least 17 foreign troops have been killed this week.
The massive military operation in Kandahar is the linchpin of McChrystal’s strategy to turn the tide this year, using the bulk of 30,000 reinforcements sent by U.S. President Barack Obama in a final “surge” of extra troops announced in December.
Obama embraced a counterinsurgency strategy devised by McChrystal last year that aims to push the Taliban from key population centres. But in agreeing to send McChrystal extra troops, the White House also set a goal of starting a gradual withdrawal in July 2011, making the next 12 months critical.
Gates said the Kandahar operation could take months.
“Kandahar is a project that will take a number of months. As we have seen in Helmand, it takes time,” he said.