US expects signs of progress in Afghan war 'by end of year'

9th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday he expected to see signs of progress by the end of the year in the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, despite mounting casualties.

Speaking in London, Gates said the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, "is pretty confident that by the end of the year he will be able to point to sufficient progress that validates the strategy and also justifies continuing to work at this".

But he cautioned that there were "no illusions" about quick victories and that there was a difficult struggle ahead, warning it would be a "tough summer" battling Taliban insurgents.

Underscoring the rising violence in Afghanistan, Taliban militants shot down a NATO helicopter in the southern province of Helmand on Wednesday, killing four US soldiers and bringing to 23 the number of foreign troops killed so far this week.

Gates said the United States and its allies were under pressure to show some success in the war, now in its ninth year, and US voters would not accept an open-ended "stalemate" with soldiers dying.

In talks with Britain's new defence secretary, Liam Fox, Gates said there was "general agreement... that all of us, for our publics, are going to have to show by the end of the year that our strategy is on the right track and making some headway."

He said improving government services and civilian development efforts formed an important part of the effort, but the war was not a nation-building exercise.

"The reason we are there is for our own security," he said. "We are not there to build 21st century Afghanistan. None of us will be alive that long."

Gates stressed that the United States had been attacked by Al-Qaeda militants based in Afghanistan in 2001 and "we want to make sure we are never attacked again from out of there."

He warned, however, of more bloodshed to come, saying the military expected a "high level of violence, particularly this summer" as coalition forces move into areas controlled by the Taliban.

Out of a surge of 30,000 troops ordered by US President Barack Obama, about 17-18,000 US troops had arrived in Afghanistan, he said.

He said US commanders faced a challenge in planning coalition troop deployments in the south, where the NATO-led force hopes to turn the tide in the war in the Taliban's spiritual homeland of Kandahar.

Dutch troops stationed in Uruzgan are due to leave this year and about 3,000 Canadian forces are to depart Kandahar at the end of next year.

Australia has made clear it is not ready to take the lead in Kandahar, according to Gates, while Britain has opted to keep its troops in neighbouring Helmand province.

The Pentagon had been studying the problem for several months and "we don't have an answer yet," he said.

Gates, who was to attend a meeting of NATO defence ministers on Thursday in Brussels, said there was still a shortfall of about 450 personnel from allied countries needed to train Afghan security forces.

But he said he would not ask Britain for trainers, as London had already made major contributions in combat troops, having deployed about 9,500 soldiers in total, most of them in Helmand.

Countries that had been reluctant to send troops into combat ought to help provide the trainers needed to build up Afghan security forces, Gates added.

© 2010 AFP

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