Brussels: NATO touted "measured progress" in Afghanistan on Friday as US Defense Secretary Robert Gates pleaded for patience with the war effort, saying a new strategy needed time to take root.
"Operations across Afghanistan are making measured progress in extending the reach of the Afghan government, changing the political conditions, and marginalising the insurgency," NATO defence ministers said in a statement at a two-day meeting in Brussels.
"Significant challenges remain, and success is not yet assured," the statement said, "but we are encouraged by recent results."
The ministers cited "particular efforts in Central Helmand and Kandahar", where NATO-led forces have taken on Taliban strongholds.
After more than eight years of war and declining public support, military commanders are under mounting political pressure to show signs of success in Afghanistan.
But the US defence chief said a promising new approach -- backed up with reinforcements -- had only been adopted months earlier under General Stanley McChrystal, who took over command a year ago.
"As far as I`m concerned this endeavour began in full, and reasonably resourced only a few months ago. A counter-insurgency takes a good bit of time," Gates told a news conference after the meeting.
He said Afghanistan had been neglected by Washington after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, with too few troops deployed, and that the Taliban had the initiative up until last year.
The NATO ministers believed the war effort was headed in the right direction but he said there would be a "long and difficult" fight ahead, with proof of progress still "tentative".
"No one would deny that the signs of progress are tentative at this point, that they are almost anecdotal," he said.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said earlier the coalition operations underway aimed at "the heart of Taliban territory".
The Taliban are aware that if they lose the support of the population in the southern provinces, it would represent "a serious failure" and were therefore putting up "dogged resistance", he said in a statement to the ministers.
"But we can already see the results, and we will stay the course."
He spoke a day after the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, McChrystal, said a pivotal operation in Kandahar will move at a slower pace than initially planned.
The delay was due to a shortage of Afghan security forces, officers said, as well as the need to reassure local leaders and win the trust of a wary population, which -- like the Taliban leadership -- is mainly Pashtun.
Rasmussen said a gradual handover to Afghan forces was crucial and it was possible the "transition" could begin by the end of the year, depending on conditions on the ground.