Gates cautious about gains in Afghanistan

Posted in Broader Middle East , United States | 04-Jun-07 | Author: Mark Mazzetti| Source: International Herald Tribune

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates smiles during a news conference in Kabul June 4, 2007.

KABUL, Afghanistan: Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived here in the Afghan capital on Sunday, expressing guarded optimism about the progress of the military campaign against a resurgent Taliban.

Evidence is mounting that Taliban fighters are using sophisticated new weaponry, possibly smuggled into the country from Iran. The Taliban has also stepped up the number of suicide attacks aimed at destabilizing Afghanistan's still fragile government.

Still, American officials believe that NATO forces have inflicted significant losses on the Taliban and that the pace of combat operations and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan — while slow — remains steady.

"I think actually things are slowly, cautiously headed in the right direction," Gates told reporters aboard his plane on Sunday. "I'm concerned to keep it moving that way."

Gates, who will meet with Afghan government officials and American and NATO commanders on Monday, said one goal for the trip was to ensure that combat operations in Afghanistan were closely coordinated with development and reconstruction efforts carried out by dozens of foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations.

Defense Department officials say they believe that NATO combat operations since the beginning of the year have managed to thwart the Taliban's much anticipated springtime offensive, preventing Taliban fighters from surrounding and isolating the southern city of Kandahar.

But instead of massing in large numbers against Western forces, the Taliban in recent months have begun a campaign of suicide attacks and roadside bombs — tactics that have been used with deadly effect by Iraqi insurgents.

A total of 75 allied troops died in Afghanistan in the first five months of this year, including 38 Americans, compared with 53 allied troops in the same period a year ago, including 37 Americans. Three more allied deaths have been reported in June, including one American, according to icasualties.org, a Web site which tracks military and civilian casualties.

American military officials in Afghanistan have also said that they have discovered a type of armor-piercing explosive that has killed hundreds of American troops in Iraq, but until recently had never been found inside Afghanistan.

General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Singapore on Sunday that the sophisticated bombs, called explosively formed projectiles, were evidence that the Taliban were "adapting and learning."

Bush administration officials have for months accused Iranian operatives of giving the armor-piercing bombs to Shiite militias in Iraq, but said that they had yet to find direct evidence that such weapons shipments had the explicit endorsement of the highest levels of Iran's government.

American intelligence officials say they believe that a branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard called the Quds Force is making similar arms shipments into Afghanistan to support the Taliban. But they say it is murky whether the government in Tehran is approving shipments.

The prospect of Iran, a Shiite country, directly aiding the Sunni Taliban is particularly worrying to American officials, because it would demonstrate that Iran was ignoring sectarian considerations in order to undermine American efforts throughout the region.

One senior defense department official said Sunday that it was difficult to determine Iran's overall strategy in Afghanistan, and whether Tehran was covertly supporting the Taliban to undermine the government of President Hamid Karzai.

"They portray themselves as supporters of the Karzai government," the official said, but "it remains to be seen whether they're basically trying to play both sides."

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