NATO won't know until June if the security gains being made in the Taliban-stronghold of Kandahar will hold, a top commander said Thursday, lowering hopes for a quick return on the Obama administration's investment of tens of thousands more troops.
Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, the British commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, said enemy attacks often decrease as the weather cools and foliage disappears, leaving the insurgents fewer places to hide. In the spring, many fighters are harvesting poppy and wheat crops, he said.
"I sensed it won't be until June next year that we'll be sure that the advances we've made during the course of the last few months are genuinely successful," Carter said. He spoke to reporters at the Pentagon from his headquarters at Kandahar airfield via a video link.
The Obama administration is scheduled to report to Congress in December on progress in the war, following the deployment of tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops. Carter's comments suggest that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, may say it is too early to tell if stepped-up operations against the Taliban have yielded permanent gains.
Late last year, President Barack Obama ordered an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan with the goal of driving out the Taliban once and for all. Obama also promised that troops would start coming home next July.
Regaining control of the Kandahar region _ where the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were planned _ was considered crucial to meeting Obama's timeline.
But the outcome remains far from certain. Carter and other military officials say that significant challenges lie ahead, including the need to persuade locals to shun the Taliban and sign up for government service.
The inability to prop up an effective district government has stalled progress in nearby Marjah, a cluster of farming hamlets in southern Afghanistan where firefights continue some eight months after a major NATO-led offensive there.
Carter said similar challenges exist in Kandahar.
"What's needed are Afghans to step up to the plate, to be the leaders at district levels and in other positions in the police force and, of course, also in the army," Carter said of Kandahar.
Carter said there are signs of recent progress in Kandahar, which could give Afghan's leaders the time they need to set up government institutions in the southern region.
Afghan civilians are moving more freely on highways and traveling into district centers, Carter said, rather than hiding in their homes. Residents celebrated late into the evening at the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, he said, evidence that they feel more secure.
And for the first time, 10 tons of pomegranates were exported recently out of Kandahar Air Field, he said.
"There's a lot of distance to go, and it is still possible for the insurgency to intimidate and to assassinate a number of the key leaders, and also to mount the odd spectacular from time to time," Carter said.
"But I suspect if you wandered around the streets of Kandahar now," it would be evident that "the man in the street is in a better place than he was three or four months ago," he added.