KABUL, Afghanistan — Persistent reminders that U.S. troops remain embroiled in a tough fight greeted Defense Secretary Robert Gates as he toured eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, days before the Obama administration is scheduled to complete a major review of its war strategy.
In Kunar province, a few miles from the Pakistani border, Gates pinned combat medals on a dozen soldiers as U.S. commanders reported a litany of challenges in attempting to secure the area. At another border-region base, in Nangarhar province, Gates offered condolences to an Army platoon that suffered six deaths last week when an Afghan police officer opened fire on his U.S. trainers.
"I know you all have had a rough go of it, taken a lot of losses," Gates told soldiers at Forward Operating Base Connolly in Nangarhar.
Gates' visit to Afghanistan came four days after President Barack Obama touched down at Bagram Air Base to meet with troops and coincided with a Marine general's declaration that the battle for the southern Afghan city of Marja, a former Taliban stronghold, was "essentially over."
Maj. Gen. Richard Mills told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that the resistance in Marja today consists of little more than potshots at U.S. Marines, a major advance over the heavy fighting last spring and summer. Marines, however, are still facing heavy resistance in other areas of Helmand, such as the city of Sangin
"We believe that we have arrested the momentum of the Taliban in many parts of Afghanistan but not in all," Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces, told reporters before he met with Gates in Kabul.
Next week, the White House is scheduled to finish the first major review of its Afghan operations since Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 extra troops in a bid to halt the spreading Taliban-led insurgency.
Pentagon and White House officials have said that the surge has slowed the Taliban's comeback and that they are encouraged by progress in some areas, particularly in the south. But they also have acknowledged that results have been uneven and that the insurgency has been resilient despite the troop buildup.