Kandahar: US Defence Secretary Robert Gates met on Friday with US soldiers at the "tip of the spear" in the Taliban`s Afghan heartland as a pivotal surge of 30,000 extra troops neared completion.
Gates was set to spend the day in southern Kandahar province, one of the hottest spots of the intensifying war against the insurgents which is nearing the end of its ninth year.
He arrived in Kabul on Thursday on an unannounced trip, fresh from presiding over ceremonies in Baghdad marking the formal end to US combat engagement there after seven years.
His visit comes as international forces -- and especially the Americans -- are losing record numbers of soldiers in the fight to quell the Taliban-led insurgency that has spread its footprint across most of the country.
Gates` first stop on Friday was at a small NATO base outside Kandahar city that has recently lost eight soldiers to insurgent violence.
"You all are clearly on the frontline," he told the 100 US troops deployed there, part of the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, as they sat in a circle in front of their armoured vehicles.
"This has been a very tough week for you all," he said. "What makes a difference in this whole campaign is your success here in Kandahar city."
The deaths of two US soldiers on Thursday took to 326 the number of Americans killed this year, of a coalition total of 493. The overall toll for the whole of 2009 was 521.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said the visit was a chance for Gates to talk to troops "at the tip of the spear" in the war against the militants.
Gates told reporters on Thursday, at a joint news conference with President Hamid Karzai, that the surge of 30,000 additional troops ordered by President Barack Obama was nearly complete.
The extra deployment will push the international force to full strength of 150,000 as part of the US-led counter-insurgency campaign aimed at speeding an end to the long war.
Gates` visit to Afghanistan has highlighted the challenge the Western alliance is facing in the impoverished, corrupt country, where the war is seeming increasingly bogged down in favour of the insurgents.
Karzai has criticised the military effort as "ineffective" and doing little more than causing civilian casualties, an incendiary issue among Afghans.
The news conference was held hours after Karzai strongly condemned a NATO air strike he said killed 10 civilians, but which the alliance force said hit only militants. Gates backed NATO`s account on Thursday.
On Friday, Gates supported Karzai`s plan to disband all private security companies by the end of the year, despite concerns among the military and civilians based in Afghanistan about an alternative source of security.
Karzai announced last month that the 52 security contractors in the country must disband by January 01, 2011, freeing up resources for the national police and army, and removing what many see as private militias.
Answering a question from a soldier, Gates said: "We had a problem with uncontrolled private security companies in Iraq and it became a big issue with the Iraqis.”
"I think what President Karzai is trying to do is to get a handle on these people that have basically had free rein here in Afghanistan, including how they treat Afghan people."
In what appeared to signal the possibility that Karzai may roll back from the original deadline, he said: "President Karzai understands the need to keep some of these companies," an apparent reference to the need to protect development projects.
Asked by another soldier if the United States would be going after militant safe havens in Pakistan, where the leadership of the Taliban and other groups are believed to be based, Gates said: "The likelihood of US direct military engagement in Pakistan is very low."
He praised Pakistan`s moves against extremist cells based in the border regions, saying "their operations in South Waziristan really flushed a lot of these groups including a lot of al Qaeda that have fled to North Waziristan."
"Unfortunately the flooding in Pakistan is probably going to delay any operations of the Pakistani army in North Waziristan for some period of time," he said, adding that cooperation between the alliance, Afghanistan and Pakistan was "the solution... to these problems".