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KABUL, Afghanistan – Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived here today to get an assessment of the Marjah operation and discuss the next steps in the Afghanistan troop surge, particularly the planning for eventual reconciliation and reintegration of insurgent fighters.

The first major campaign of the new counterinsurgency plan has been largely hailed as a success thus far, but Gates cautioned that it was premature to be optimistic about momentumshifting away from the Taliban. He said there were “bits and pieces of good news” but “still very hard fighting, very hard days” ahead.

Gates, who is expected to travel outside Kabul to visit troops, will be meeting in the capitol with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

How commanders envision the upcoming campaign in Khandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban, and whether it will look like Marjah are “exactly the questions I intend to ask Gen. McChystal,” Gates said.

He also said he wants to “to flesh out” the ideas for reconciliation and hear what Karzai has in mind.

“I do believe that the senior Taliban are only going to be interested in reconciliation – in terms that are acceptable to the Afghan government and to those of us supporting it – when they see that the likelihood of their being successful has been cast into serious doubt,” Gates said. “My guess is they’re not at that point yet.”

Still, he doesn’t think it’s too early to start planning for reconciliation.

The process will be Afghan led, but since some of the reconciliation is “going to happen on or near the battlefield … I think we can play a role,” Gates said about the military’s involvement.

Gates also wants an assessment of how the military is progressing with counter-IED tactics, including how the United States is helping allies in that realm. He also wants to see if efforts are being made to make it easier for battalions to pick and chose equipment based on the mission of the day.

Gates will also be checking up on the logistical aspects of the surge, such as troop flow and whether equipment is arriving in a timely manner.

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