COMBAT OUTPOST KOWALL, Afghanistan — The next few weeks may be the most important period of the Afghanistan War.
That is what Defense Secretary Robert Gates heard from commanders he visited Tuesday in Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand and Kandahar provinces, echoing what the commander of coalition forces in the east said one day earlier.
Since arriving in October, Marines engaged in some of the most dangerous fighting of the war say they have driven insurgents out of huge swaths of the Sangin district along the Helmand River valley. Special Forces are standing up local Afghan village police at a record pace near Arghandab in Kandahar province.
Both are key representations of how last year’s U.S.-led surge of 30,000 troops has taken away some of the Taliban’s safest enclaves. Now, each is anxiously waiting to see whether their gains will hold when the Taliban return en masse this spring.
“That will really in many respects be the acid test of how effective the progress we made is,” Gates told reporters after making a carefully orchestrated walk down a heavily guarded, narrow and walled road from Combat Outpost Kowall to meet new police recruits and elders in the village of Tabin.
The scene in many ways reflected the state of the country as commanders describe it: Good enough to allow the top U.S. defense official to walk without body armor down a road one battalion leader said soldiers would not drive on six months earlier, as children waved back and peered cautiously around doorways; precarious enough to require dozens of snipers, security officers, soldiers and an armored vehicle to line the route.
“I do feel like things are coming together,” Gates said.
His visit left him “very encouraged” about the Obama administration’s goal to draw down in July, but “that probably won’t be here in the south or southwest to start.”
The secretary spent his second and final day in Afghanistan visiting a region that in the past few months has seen some of the deadliest fighting of the war. In Sangin, the losses that the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines have suffered since October — 29 dead, more than 150 wounded, nearing the 1000th found or exploded bomb — are unmatched.
One of those killed was 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, the son of Gates’ newly tapped senior military advisor, Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly. On Tuesday, Kelly quietly spoke with 3/5 Marines in a courtyard of Forward Operating Base Sabit Qadam, asking how they were doing, giving them encouragement.
Battalion commander Lt. Col. Jason Morris said the area was once “an island in a sea of insurgency” where the Taliban had “absolute sanctuary” to hone their skills.
In their first months, Marines faced heavy Taliban fighting every 100 to 200 meters. But 90 percent of the Marines’ losses came in the first 90 days. Since then, Marines have claimed the valley’s main road and taken over population centers that were topped with Taliban flags when they arrived. Now, the flags are gone, hidden bombs cleared from the roads to the point of “complete freedom of movement,” the sea of red poppies in the arable zone is receding, and there are 900 vendors from the region in the main bazaar.
Morris said the local population is tired of the Taliban’s fighting and he’s hopeful they will reject the Taliban when they return. But the district governor still works out of an office on the base because security is still not good enough to move him into the local governor’s house at the end of the bazaar.
There are signs the Taliban will stage a comeback. Coalition forces are finding greater numbers of newly planted weapons caches and bomb-making components, and they have something to fight for. This region was once the Taliban’s support-and-supply center. The dry river bed mountain pass into the valley from the west once carried 50 percent of the funding for senior Taliban leaders across the Pakistan border in Quetta.
“We are expecting the violence to pick up in the next couple of weeks,” Morris said.
Despite having killed 400, wounded 150 to 200, and captured 50 to 75 Taliban since they arrived, he expects “several hundred” more will try to reclaim what was theirs.
“I will tell you they’re going to have a real hard time doing that,” Morris said. “The progress that we’ve made in the last three months has allowed us to expand to the point where patrol bases, combat outposts, and patrols of partnered ISAF and ANSF forces are going to meet them at every turn.”
Additionally, Morris said NATO’s commitment to stay through 2014 made a big difference in convincing locals to switch sides.
“They’re fed up with the fighting,” he said. “They don’t want them to come back here anymore, they just need some help pushing these guys out or keeping them out.”
Back in Kabul, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, deputy commander of the war, said this spring’s fight will be different: The Taliban will return to a different environment, not armed with tens of thousands more coalition and Afghan forces.
“This is no longer their home field. They don’t own that like they used to,” he said confidently.
For now, all eyes in the south are on Afghanistan’s trees. Once they bloom, the Taliban will return to use their cover.
“Everything here is really geared around the leaves on the trees,” said Maj. Tom Burrell, the battalion operations officer.