Reporting from Washington —
With training of Afghanistan's army and police ahead of schedule, American officials now believe the U.S.-led military coalition could begin transferring some security responsibilities to Afghan forces as early as spring.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview that given faster-than-expected progress in training army units, it was likely that those forces could assume primary responsibility for security sooner in less violent areas of the country, freeing up NATO troops for operations elsewhere.
"With more Afghan forces, we can be on a path to transition in more places around the country," Gates said. "The success with the [Afghan] army in particular, I think, bodes well for in fact beginning to have some transitions maybe as early as this spring, but certainly beginning in the summer."
Gates was referring to the recent announcement by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization training command in Afghanistan that it had reached its 2010 goal of 134,000 trained Afghan troops two months early.
His comments are part of an effort by senior civilian and military officials to counter growing doubts in the U.S. and Europe about the war. In separate interviews, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior commander in Afghanistan, also pointed to what he called "small pockets of progress" in several areas.
Gates and Petraeus played down the possibility of rapid cuts in U.S. troop levels starting in July 2011, the point at which President Obama said the 30,000-troop increase he ordered late last year would start to reverse.
"There is no question in anybody's mind that we are going to begin drawing down troops in July of 2011," Gates said in the interview Thursday. But so far, he said, "there hasn't even been a discussion of a steep decline quickly" at the top levels of the administration.
His comments were a pointed rebuttal to lower-level officials in Washington who have privately asserted that Obama will rapidly withdraw troops beginning next summer.
Gates disputed that notion, emphasizing a consensus among himself, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama.
"As the president has said, and Hillary has said and I've said, the pace and the number are going to depend on the conditions on the ground," Gates said.
Petraeus emphasized in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" that any drawdown would depend on gains in quelling the insurgency and establishing competent Afghan forces.
Despite the gains in numbers, the Afghan national army remains heavily dependent on the U.S. for logistics, air cover and planning of operations, which are usually conducted with U.S. advisors or jointly with NATO units. U.S. commanders say the Afghans are often staunch fighters and can be invaluable, particularly because they speak Dari and Pashto.
But the army and, to a greater extent, the police remain beset by attrition, drug use and corruption. Meanwhile, the insurgency has been making inroads in areas outside its traditional strongholds in the south and east.
The international military command said Sunday that insurgents attacked a district police station in northern Afghanistan a day earlier, an assault that ended with a NATO airstrike that killed two of the attackers.
Petraeus left open the possibility that he might recommend against anything more than a token drawdown starting next July.
"The president didn't send me over here to seek a graceful exit," the general was quoted as saying by the New York Times. Petraeus took over as the top commander in early July, after Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal was replaced for comments he and his aides made that were published in a Rolling Stone article.
Whether Obama is willing to remain heavily engaged in Afghanistan beyond next year is unclear, especially if signs of lasting progress are elusive and public support for the war continues to diminish.
"What the president very much wants from me, and what we talked about in the Oval Office, is the responsibility of a military commander on the ground to provide his best professional military advice," Petraeus told NBC. "Leave the politics to him."
The comments by Gates and Petraeus reflect the difficult position in which they find themselves. They need to show gains, especially in order to reassure nervous allies, but they are unable to endorse a rapid pullout next year because of the possibility that security will remain tenuous at best.
Although the U.S.-led training effort is ahead of schedule, it still is 750 trainers short of what it needs, Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, commander of the training mission, told reporters last week. North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries have failed to send promised personnel, forcing the United States to send additional units and to rely more heavily on contractors to ready Afghan units.
If Afghans are able to take over responsibility for more areas of the country by next spring, it will free up U.S. and other NATO troops to move to still-violent regions, rather than permitting withdrawals, Gates said.
"It's incumbent on us to show greater progress, to show sustained progress," Petraeus said. "I would argue that the progress, if you will, really just began this spring."
Petraeus said operations in central Helmand province have improved security for residents. He said advances also are underway in Kandahar and the southern part of Herat province, even as the Taliban has been "fighting back very hard."
"All of these," he said, "are small pockets of progress."
Times staff writer Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.