WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A NATO offensive to secure the Taliban’s birthplace of Kandahar is putting pressure on militants, but genuine success will not be clear until next June, the region’s top commander said on Thursday.
British Major-General Nick Carter’s comments were the latest by U.S. and NATO officials touting battlefield advances but also calling for patience ahead of a NATO summit in November and a White House strategy review in December.
Kandahar is expected to figure prominently at both events. Thousands of U.S. and Afghan troops are engaged in a campaign to flush insurgents from districts around Kandahar city, a campaign seen as vital to turning the tide of a war now in its 10th year.
Carter, briefing Pentagon reporters, said he saw “some encouraging signs, definitely momentum.”
“(There is) a sense that probably the initiative is now with us and not, as it was a year ago, with the insurgency,” he said.
Carter said it is impossible to gauge advances from one season to the next because fighting in Afghanistan is seasonal. Fighting peaks in the summer, when foliage provides Taliban fighters with cover and casualties are at their highest.
“You, in Afghanistan, have to be very careful about not measuring progress until you match it to the appropriate season and the appropriate time of year,” Carter said.
“And I sense it won’t be until June next year that we’ll be sure that the advances we’ve made during the course of the last few months are genuinely success.”
This year has been the deadliest for Western troops since U.S.-backed forces ousted Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in 2001. Forty-four U.S. troops have been killed this month alone. Officials have voiced renewed concern about Taliban safe havens in neighboring Pakistan.
Still, no major changes to Afghan war strategy are expected at this year’s December White House review.
President Barack Obama’s review last year ended with a decision to deploy 30,000 additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan, allowing for a surge of troops into Kandahar and elsewhere in the south, where fighting is fiercest.
Obama aims to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan next July. The top U.S. and NATO commander there plans to start handing over security control to Afghan forces in 2011. Afghan President Hamid Karzai aims to take lead security control of all of Afghanistan by 2014.
Carter said insurgents have been “squeezed” thanks to NATO success retaking population centers, killing mid- to low-level leaders and thwarting attempts to bomb Western forces.
Securing Kandahar and its surroundings is one of NATO’s most daunting tasks, particularly since it depends not just on military might but getting local Afghans to trust a government long criticized as corrupt and ineffective.