Violence is expected to escalate in Afghanistan this summer as U.S.-led forces ramp up their operations in the southern province of Kandahar. On Thursday, a suicide bomber attacked a wedding party in Kandahar, killing at least 40 people.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the Kandahar operation that is supposed to be getting under way this month is moving more slowly than expected.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is in Europe this week pressuring allies to send more troops to Afghanistan so that U.S. forces can start to draw down by July 2011, the timetable set by President Obama.
But if American forces are supposed to start going home next summer, Gates says he needs to see proof that the war is moving in the right direction by the end of this year.
Gates: No Tolerance For Stalemate In Afghanistan
Speaking to reporters in London earlier this week, Gates said: "If we are making progress, if it's clear that we have the right strategy, then I think the people will be patient. The one thing none of the publics, and I would say including the American public, will tolerate is the perception of a stalemate."
McChrystal is trying to walk the line between the political timetable for success in Afghanistan and the reality on the ground.
At a NATO defense summit Thursday in Brussels, McChrystal said the Kandahar operation is going to take months longer than planned. But, "I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing," he said. "I think it's better to get it right than get it fast."
McChrystal said his commanders learned crucial lessons from the major military operation in Marja, in neighboring Helmand province, earlier this year.
The main lesson, he said, is that security gains aren't sustainable without the support of the local population. "As we conduct counterinsurgency operations around the Helmand River valley, we are reminded that it's a deliberate process. It takes time to convince people," he said.
The Clock Is Ticking
U.S. forces have about 12 months before President Obama wants to start pulling some of them out. And it is unclear just what Afghanistan should look like at that point.
Gates says Afghanistan should begin to show signs of a functioning government that people trust and an established rule of law, both of which would be considered huge accomplishments. But he also said those ambitions have limits.
"We are not there to build 21st century Afghanistan. None of us will be alive that long," he said.
Both Gates and McChrystal say the key to standing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan is getting Afghan security forces to step up.
The Afghan police and national army have met recruitment goals. Gates says the problem is that there aren’t enough NATO troops to train them.
So he has essentially been going door to door, asking partners to provide the extra 450 trainers needed. After meeting with allies at a security conference in Singapore last week, he said he wasn't able to get any kind of commitments for more trainers but "everybody understands the importance of this and I will continue going around with my hand out."
Europe Under Pressure
Whether NATO allies decide to reach into their pockets is unclear. The past few months Europe has seen the worst of the global economic crisis, with some countries poised to make the biggest cuts to their defense budgets since the Cold War.
Britain's new defense minister, Liam Fox, described the current climate with a statistic intended to shock. "People probably don't understand the size of the public debt in the U.K.," he said. "But it's probably about the equivalent of borrowing 1.2 million pounds every single day since the birth of Christ."
There are already more than 9,000 British troops fighting in Afghanistan, and Gates said this week that he would not ask the U.K. to bear more of the training burden.
Instead, he is asking more of other NATO members. Before the NATO summit, he said, "My view is that those allies and partners that are not prepared to commit combat forces or to increase the number of their combat forces should step up when it comes to trainers."
The capability of Afghan security forces will be a key benchmark; McChrystal will assess that in December when he conducts a strategic review of the war.
If he can show even modest gains at that point, Gates says it will help to navigate a difficult path: convincing Americans that they can start to pull out troops in 2011, while convincing Afghans that the U.S. is prepared to stay as long as it takes.