KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — As the last of the 30,000 additional troops that President Barack Obama dispatched to Afghanistan arrived, top American military leaders here conceded Friday that the country's pervasive corruption threatens to undermine the effort to clear communities of insurgents and hand them over to governments that Afghans consider legitimate.
Faced with problematic public and political support at home for the war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration and Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Afghanistan, continue to issue upbeat pronouncements about progress and the prospects for success. Many U.S. military and intelligence officials and diplomats in the country, however, are more guarded, warning among other things that while the additional U.S. troops are concentrated in the south, the Taliban are moving into areas in the north and elsewhere.
Moreover, even if coalition and Afghan troops succeed in eradicating Taliban influence and training Afghan forces to take over security, the officials said, the national and local governments are riddled with corruption and have lost the trust of many Afghans. Many Afghans say that while they don't like the Taliban, the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai is no better at providing security and legitimate governance than the militant Islamists are.
Afghans lack confidence that their central government can provide them with security, said Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the No. 2 commander in Afghanistan. "It is just like everything else. It will be a slow process," he said. "All of that has got to improve."
He called the mission challenging, "but not impossible."
Added Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Friday during a two-day visit: "Everyone knows this is far from a done deal."
Petraeus said the Karzai administration was addressing corruption and that the often-strained relationship between the United States and the Afghan president now was good "because we can have candid conversations, forthright conversations."
During Gates' visit, however, other top military commanders said they were hopeful, but they shrouded their comments with caution. After visiting two bases in restive Kandahar province, Gates said he "came away encouraged" that the Obama administration's strategy to fend off a resurgent Taliban was beginning to work.
"I think it all points in a positive direction," Gates said Friday in Zhari district, the birthplace of the Taliban, after meeting with troops stationed there.
Gates, who shook the hand of every soldier he encountered, added that the troops are realistic about the months ahead.
"They all acknowledge this a hard fight," Gates said in comments afterward. "They understand the importance of what we are doing."
Petraeus and Rodriguez pressed for patience even as they face a July 2011 deadline set by the Obama administration to begin drawing down U.S. forces. The administration is planning a strategy review in December, and top commanders here are crafting benchmarks for that review, Gates said.
Rodriguez said he thought there'd be progress in southern Afghanistan by December. However, he hesitated about whether it would be substantial.
"It will be gradual," he said.
The last "surge" troops have arrived in what's been the most violent part of the country to buttress operations to clear communities of Taliban influence and build Afghan security forces to take control.
Whether the strategy is creating sustainable progress and shifting momentum away from the Taliban, who control large swaths of the country through persuasion or coercion, remains unclear.
Earlier in the day, Gates visited troops at Contingency Operating Base Nathan Smith in central Kandahar city who were part of the surge forces. There, troops with the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division from Fort Carson. Colo., said their operation in nearby Malajat had ended Taliban control. The Soviets, they said, never conquered the village of Malajat during their own war in Afghanistan.
Local commanders said they could feel a shift in momentum as Afghans watched U.S. and Afghan troops move into the one-time Taliban stronghold. They said Afghans were increasingly encouraged and the Taliban were weakened.
However, those American troops had been stationed in Afghanistan for only two weeks, and they'd already lost eight soldiers, seven of them on Monday.
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