COMBAT OUTPOST CAFFERETA, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Robert Gates walked the streets of Now Zad on Tuesday, surveying the city that was “the first test” of the new counterinsurgency strategy and the model for the offensive in nearby Marjah.

“This place used to be a ghost town, a no-go zone,” Gates said when he thanked Marines for an operation that pushed the Taliban out of Now Zad.

The city of 30,000 people was the second-largest in Helmand province before it was deserted four years ago. Marines estimate about 2,500 have trickled back since the effort late last year dubbed Cobra’s Anger.

Before that, Capt. Abe Sipe said, “It was the Marines and it was the Taliban.”

Some of the first reinforcements ordered by President Barack Obama last year were sent into Now Zad, leading up to Cobra’s Anger, which, according to Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, ended the “status quo” where “the enemy looked at us, we looked at them and nothing much happened.”

On Tuesday, Gates strolled through the partially re-opened market and spoke with a few Afghan shopkeepers. The area remains largely empty but Gates said he kept reminding himself that for years no one lived there and it had only been a few months since the Taliban was routed.

He told Marines their efforts would be “a model for other campaigns going forth.”

The next phase likely will take place in Kandahar, an area Gates also visited Tuesday to meet with top commanders and talk with soldiers. He pinned two aviation soldiers with Silver Stars.

Gates stopped off at Operating Base Frontenac, about 30 miles north of Kandahar city, visiting with a Stryker unit that took heavy losses when it first arrived in July. Twenty-two soldiers have been killed and 62 wounded.

“You came into an area totally controlled by the Taliban,” Gates said, standing near a memorial listing the names of those killed. “You fought for a critical battle space, you bled for it and now you own it.”

And he told them that they weren’t done yet.

“You’re in an area that once again is going to be an important part of the decisive phase of this campaign,” Gates said. “Once again, you will be the tip of the spear.”

Brigade commander Lt. Col. Jonathan Neumann said their mission is to ensure the main roads into Kandahar are open and safe. The city is critical to commerce in southern Afghanistan.

“If people can’t move freely on the highway, they’ll never feel connected to their government and like they are out from under the thumb of the Taliban,” he said.

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