Sangin: US defense secretary Robert Gates touted progress on a visit to southern Afghanistan Tuesday but said NATO forces will soon face an "acid test" as Taliban insurgents move to seize back ground.
In a tour of volatile battlegrounds, Gates said he came away encouraged that coalition and Afghan forces were rolling back the Taliban from longstanding strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
But he said results of the NATO-led campaign would not be clear for a few more months, when the Taliban is expected to exploit warmer weather to strike back.
Gates`s visit comes before foreign troops are due to start limited withdrawals from July, handing control of security to Afghan forces in some areas ahead of a full transition across Afghanistan due by 2014.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai meanwhile warned the year ahead was "critical" and would hold "crises and difficulties."
Gates predicted fighting in the spring and summer would "be very tough."
"We expect the Taliban to try and take back much of what they`ve lost," he told reporters at a US outpost in the Arghandab district, west of Kandahar city.
"And that will really in many respects be the acid test about how effective the progress that we`ve made is."
Gates said plans are on track to start a gradual withdrawal of US troops in July, but he said it was unlikely the drawdown would start in the hotly-contested south.
In neighbouring Helmand province, Gates earlier told US Marines they had made a "strategic breakthrough" in the district of Sangin, a Taliban bastion that has long frustrated coalition forces.
"Before you arrived here the Taliban were dug in deep," said Gates, standing near a monument honouring British troops who suffered heavy losses before handing over to the Americans in October.
Lieutenant Colonel Jason Morris of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment said the Taliban had been pushed off the area`s main road and for the first time in years no longer dominated Sangin, a key hub for the insurgents` opium trade and supply network.
But he warned violence would probably "pick up in the next couple of weeks."
The tentative gains in Sangin have come at a high price for the Americans, with 29 killed and 175 wounded, the worst casualties of any battalion in the war, Gates said.
He later flew to a combat outpost in the Arghandab district in Kandahar province, where he walked through a dusty village once controlled by the Taliban.
Gates met Afghans recruited for a new local police initiative -- the brainchild of US special forces -- and spoke with village elders clad in turbans, some of whom used to be allied with the insurgents.
"A year ago, even six months ago, I wouldn`t driven a vehicle down that road, much less walk down it," said Major Tom Burrell, one of the soldiers stationed at Combat Outpost Kowall next to the village.
Gates said the surge of US troops combined with Afghan army and police was starting to have a cumulative effect: "I do feel like the pieces are coming together."
As Gates offered an upbeat assessment, Karzai spoke of a "critical" year ahead during a speech in Kabul.
"This is extremely important and critical," he said. "This is a year in which we will face crises and difficulties... the success that we hope for depends on our unity and statesmanship."
Karzai is due on March 21 to unveil the first areas where Afghan forces will take the lead.