Tue, Mar 09, 2010 - Page 5 News List

Gates visits Kabul, warns of ‘hard fight’ still ahead

AFP , KABUL

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates flew into Kabul on an unannounced visit yesterday, warning of “hard fighting” still ahead despite signs of progress in the eight-year war against Taliban insurgents.

“There is no doubt there are positive developments going on, but I would say it’s very early yet,” Gates told reporters on his plane before landing in the Afghan capital.

He cautioned that there would be “some very hard fighting, very hard days ahead” as US, NATO and Afghan forces step up pressure on Taliban militants in the south as part of a new strategy designed to end the war.

Gates acknowledged “bits and pieces of good news” when asked about the recent capture of senior Taliban leaders in Pakistan, but said it was probably too soon to say momentum had shifted to coalition forces.

“I think more needs to be done,” he said, adding that a surge of US reinforcements was still in its initial stages.

About 6,000 of the 30,000 additional troops have arrived in Afghanistan since US President Barack Obama announced the surge in December, Gates said, with the rest due to deploy by the end of August.

It was the Pentagon chief’s first visit to Afghanistan since NATO and Afghan troops swept into the former Taliban stronghold of ­Marjah on Feb. 13, in an assault seen as a pivotal test of Obama’s bid to turn around the war.

Gates said he would discuss the results of the offensive — billed as the biggest since the 2001 US-led invasion — with the commander of US and NATO troops, General Stanley McChrystal, as well as operations planned this year.

Military leaders have said coalition forces will move on to other Taliban bastions in the south and have signalled that Kandahar — the militia’s spiritual capital which neighbors Helmand — will likely be the next target.

Gates said he wanted to “get an update on the campaign not only in Marjah but the next steps as we look to spring, summer and fall.”

The defense secretary was also due day to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai yesterday.

Gates’s visit came as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was scheduled to arrive for talks with Karzai, Iran’s Mehr news agency reported, amid rising tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program.

Iran appeared to provide some “low-level support” to militants and “could do a lot more” if it chose to, Gates said.

“They also understand our reaction, should they get too aggressive in this, is not one they would want to think about,” he added.

Such a US response would be carried out “within Afghanistan,” Gates’ press secretary said later.

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