The Taliban are reeling. U.S. and Afghan troops are clicking. The war is going really well. That's what Pentagon chief Robert Gates heard in two days with troops and commanders. Much less clear: the hoped-for advances in the Afghan government's ability to provide basic services and extend its authority beyond Kabul, just months before the American troop drawdown begins.
Gates visited some of the most hotly contested parts of the country, where the effects of President Barack Obama's 30,000-troop surge have been most keenly felt, as the Obama administration considers where to begin withdrawing and thinning out U.S. forces. The defense secretary's very presence in some far-flung combat bases was meant to show the progress the U.S.-led international military force claims.
"The closer you are to the fight, the better it looks," he told reporters Tuesday at a U.S. combat outpost to the west of here, in Kandahar province.
The view from near the front lines may be improving nearly 10 years into the war, but it can't obscure the central question of what comes next. The search for effective Afghan governing _ for someone to take over the territory the military has secured _ will be a central issue as Congress scrutinizes Obama's war strategy and his commitment to begin winding down U.S. combat involvement. The top U.S. commander in Kabul, Army Gen. David Petraeus, is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill next week.
The second-ranking U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, said in an interview with reporters Tuesday that one reason for optimism is that the Taliban's former key strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar provinces are no longer fully in their control.
"That's no longer their home field," Rodriguez said. The key difference, he said, has been the impact of greatly increased numbers of U.S. and Afghan military forces operating in southern Afghanistan over the past year.
He said of the Taliban: "They don't own that like they used to."
True, but neither does the Kabul-based government of President Hamid Karzai, who has installed effective local governors in some places and corrupt warlords in others. The first handovers of security control to Afghanistan late this year are likely to be far from these Taliban homelands.
The Taliban, meanwhile, are presumed to be gearing up for a spring offensive, although U.S. officials say the Islamist movement that ruled Afghanistan until U.S. forces arrived in October 2001 will find the going much tougher than in past years.
"They are going to feel more emboldened to carry out their attacks to try and ... try to reassert their authority," said Lt. Col. Jason Morris, commander of 3rd battalion, 5th Marine regiment, based at Combat Outpost Sabit Qadam, in Sangin district. "I would tell you they are going to have a real hard time doing that" because U.S. and Afghan forces "are going to meet them at every turn."
At each Gates stop, optimism was in such full bloom _ especially at outposts like this one in the Taliban's southern heartland and to the east in Kandahar province -- that it was hard to detect a discouraging word. Caution, maybe. Discouragement, no.
Gates said on Monday he thinks the U.S. is "well positioned" to proceed with some troop withdrawals in July, as Obama promised when he angered many Democrats by deciding in December 2009 to escalate a war that was at best in a stalemate.
In Kandahar, Gates talked with village and tribal elders, a local police chief and a nervous-looking group of 10 fresh police recruits in neatly pressed beige uniforms. They are the vanguard of a new approach here and in more than two dozen other areas across the country to protecting communities by linking the police more closely to local authorities.
"This is encouraging on the ground," Gates said, in part because local authorities are starting to get civilian help from provincial leaders. This is seen as a way to lessen the appeal of supporting _ tacitly or otherwise _ the Taliban.
"I do feel like the pieces are coming together," Gates said.
But the crucial question _ whether the highly touted progress of recent months will hold as the Taliban mount their expected attempted comeback _ leaves Gates ready to inject a note of caution.
"The gains are fragile and reversible," he said. "The fight this spring and this summer is going to be very tough. We expect the Taliban to try to take back much of what they've lost, and that will really in many respects be the acid test of how effective the progress we have made is going to be."
His visit to the Marine outpost in Helmand province was all the more emotional for the presence in Gates' party of Lt. Gen. John Kelly, whose 29-year-old Marine son, Robert, was killed in Sangin last November. Kelly was traveling with Gates as his newly announced senior military assistant. His son's unit, the 3rd battalion, 5th Marine regiment, has suffered more than two dozen combat fatalities since it arrived in Sangin last fall _ the most for any U.S. battalion since the war began.
In a pep talk to the unit, Gates said he understood the sacrifices _ and achievements.
"In the five months since you arrived here, you have killed, captured or driven away most of the Taliban that called this area home," he said.
A close observer of the war, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in an analysis released Tuesday that U.S. gains in southern Afghanistan might prove illusory in the longer run.
"The history of similar tactical victories in Vietnam, Iraq and earlier in Afghanistan have shown that such victories are meaningless without successful hold, build, and transition, and insurgents can reverse them when large U.S. and allied forces leave," he wrote.
Gates said Monday the U.S. is interested in keeping a military presence in Afghanistan beyond the planned end of combat in 2014, but he ruled out permanent military bases.
This week's visit is Gates' 13th trip to Afghanistan, and probably one of his last as defense secretary. He has said he will retire this year but has not given a date.