"For the first time since the (earliest stage) of the Afghan war," Gates told me, we have "the resources, both civilian and military, and the strategy in place ... to actually put us on the path to success, rather than sort of holding our own." The mission, in his view, has been refocused on achievable goals: "Deny the Taliban control of populated areas. Degrade their capabilities. And expand Afghan national security forces to the point where they can handle a degraded Taliban threat." We are "going into places the Taliban have controlled for years," explained Gates. This is undermining the Taliban's economic support from the drug trade, pushing insurgents into remoter regions and giving local government a chance to take
Afghans must eventually defend these gains -- a heavy weight on a slim thread. Yet American officers in Helmand and Kandahar told me they were impressed with their Afghan army counterparts, whom one American officer described as "solid and eager." When the first Americans arrived in Helmand a little over a year ago, there were five coalition soldiers on the ground for every one from the Afghan security forces. Now that ratio is one-to-one. The Afghan police have always been a harder case -- often untrained and predatory. But the coalition is taking a new approach, organizing the Afghan Local Police (ALP) -- nominated by village elders, vetted by coalition forces, charged with extending security into rural areas. The current $12 billion spent annually by the U.S. to train Afghan security forces is too expensive to be sustainable, but it seems to be working.
This progress is about to be tested. The green leaves of spring also provide cover for Taliban returning from Pakistan. American commanders anticipate a strategy of assassination against Afghans who participate in community structures such as the ALP. "We are expecting violence to pick up," said Lt. Col. Jason Morris at FOB Jackson. "They've started moving forces here. They'll try to reassert their authority, but they'll have a hard time doing it. They will be met at every turn."
How does this fighting season differ from that past 10? "When (the Taliban) come back this spring," Gates responds, "it's no longer their home-court advantage. We hold the home-court advantage now."