Reporting from Washington — Top Obama administration officials Sunday continued their campaign to paint a more positive picture of progress in the Afghanistan conflict, even as they declined to predict how many American troops might begin to leave Afghanistan next year.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told "Fox News Sunday" that "we are making progress" in Afghanistan after President Obama ordered 30,000 more troops to the region over the winter, albeit at a rate "somewhat slower than anticipated."
"I think that it is a tough pull, and we are suffering significant casualties," Gates said. "We expected that; we warned everybody that would be the case last winter, that as we went into areas that the Taliban had controlled for two or three years that our casualties would grow, especially this summer."
Both Gates and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel emphasized that the administration would begin drawing down American troops in July 2011, as Obama has said. They noted the Afghan army was exceeding recruiting goals and that Al Qaeda's presence in the country had diminished.
"The July '11 date, as stated by the president, that's not moving," Emanuel said on ABC's "This Week." "That's not changing. Everybody agreed on that date.... And the goal is to take this opportunity, focus on what needs to get done, and then on July 2011, … begin the reduction."
Gates said it "absolutely has not been decided" how many troops would be withdrawn next year.
A holdover from the Bush administration, Gates acknowledged a "sense of frustration" among Americans about Afghanistan but compared it to the national mood over Iraq three years ago, when a troop buildup was ordered to combat a growing civil war. He noted that a third of the fresh troops ordered into Afghanistan had yet to arrive there.
"So I think there's a rush to judgment, frankly," he said, "that loses sight of the fact we are still in the middle of getting all of the right components into place and giving us a little time to have this work."
Senate leaders expressed greater caution about the war's progress and the likelihood of troop withdrawals.
Appearing on CNN's "State of the Union," Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration first needed to "define success [in Afghanistan] in a way in which the American people find this to be satisfying. Otherwise, we'll continue to argue about the date of withdrawal or how fast or how — whether we surge more or less — without ever having defined exactly what it is we hope from Afghanistan."
Asked about Vice President Joe Biden's reported comment that you can "bet" on "a lot" of troops leaving Afghanistan in July 2011, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, called the sentiment "a nice thought."
"Failure is not an option," she said. "So the question comes, either the Taliban becomes a force for good, participates in government — we're not there yet — or it has to be defeated."
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the violence continued apace Sunday. Lashkar Gah, the capital of troubled Helmand province, was hit by two bombings that killed two people and injured nearly two dozen others, Afghan officials said.
Elsewhere in Helmand, the Interior Ministry reported that two policemen had been killed a day earlier in a separate blast.
Times staff writer Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.