Gates says Petraeus sees signs of progress

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday the Afghanistan war strategy appeared to be working but cautioned it would take months of sustained progress before it could be declared a success.

Gates, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon after a meeting with French Defense Minister Herve Morin, said the question to answer before the Obama administration’s planned strategy review in December is whether the war plan is on target.

“Is the campaign plan working? Is the principle proven that this is the right approach?” Gates said. “The evidence that General (David) Petraeus is seeing so far suggests to him that it is, and both on the civilian side and the military side.”

Earlier this month Gates visited Afghanistan where he met Petraeus, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, and traveled to Kandahar province — site of some of the toughest fighting in the unpopular conflict.

Gates’ Thursday comments were some of his most optimistic to date, but he went to great lengths to temper his remarks.

“I don’t want to mislead anybody. This is a hard fight,” Gates said. “There are many challenges ahead. We will lose more kids. But I think General Petraeus has the feeling that we’re on the right track.”

The U.S. defense secretary said the progress “will have to be sustained” in the coming four to six months before officials would be able to say confidently they were moving in the right direction and accomplishing war goals.

Senior administration officials said Petraeus uses five measures in briefing President Barack Obama about progress in the war, including success in denying Taliban forces safe haven inside Afghanistan and a campaign against mid-level Taliban leaders.

Petraeus also looks at the re-integration of former fighters into communities, a program that allows communities to police themselves with Interior Ministry help and progress in developing the Afghan police and army, the officials said.

Gates told reporters one clear sign of progress was the growth “both in the numbers and the quality” of the Afghan National Security Forces, a statement with which the French defense minister agreed.