KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Kabul early Monday for a two-day visit to Afghanistan to gauge the success of the U.S. troop surge and NATO’s efforts to build up Afghan security forces, in hopes of determining which U.S. forces could be the first to pull out when the planned withdrawal begins in July.

Gates’ visit, his 13th, comes at a pivotal time.

Because of the surge, there has been less of a winter lull in fighting, but commanders are anxious to see how strongly insurgents will emerge in the spring and renew their fight. What happens in the next few months here will determine the conditions on the ground by July, and thus, guide President Barack Obama’s decision to bring troops home.

Gates hopes to spend two days visiting forward deployed troops in contested areas in the east and south, learning firsthand how Afghanistan looks at ground level.

Senior defense officials expect that in the next two weeks, President Hamid Karzai will announce the first formal plan for transitioning security to the Afghanistan government from the International Security Assistance Force. The plan also would unveil which districts would be turned over first, a decision that could affect which U.S. units get to go home in the July withdrawal pledged by the White House.

“That clearly will be an ongoing conversation on this trip,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters aboard Gates’ inbound plane, “… but this is not a decision-making trip.”

Gates will meet with war leaders including Gen. David Petraeus, commander of all Western forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who handles training Afghan forces, and Karzai. Petraeus’ deputy and operational commander Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez will accompany the secretary, who hopes to come away with a better sense of the war.

“I think he goes into this …,” Morrell said, “believing the closer you go into the fight itself, the better it looks.”

Gates thinks Caldwell is doing an “outstanding job” building up Afghan forces, Morrell said, singling out the three-star general. Gates is “clearly pleased with how far that they’ve come.”

On the whole, Morrell said, Gates believes ISAF commanders are increasingly confident that they have the right strategy and tools for their mission and are making good progress. Commanders frequently report that villages and districts under siege a year ago are now thriving with open markets and schools.

But while areas such as Marjah report a virtual renaissance thanks to a flood of security forces driving out Taliban strongmen, the U.S. continues to encounter fighters in Sangin farther to the north. And war leaders continue to grapple over how to stop the flow of fighters and supplies from Taliban, al-Qaida and Haqqani networks from Pakistan.

Two weeks ago in Oman, U.S. and Pakistani war commanders held a secret meeting — the third of its kind — between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, Pakistan Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Central Command’s Gen. James Mattis, Special Operations Command’s Adm. Eric Olson and Petraeus. An official said at the time they discussed the need for better communication and transportation infrastructure on the border, among other topics, but would not provide details.

The meeting came as some observers say U.S.-Pakistan relations are at an all-time low, following the expulsion of the CIA station chief and Pakistan’s detention of Raymond Davis, a U.S. Embassy worker on contract with the agency. In Washington last week, members of Congress continued to pound Pakistan for resisting the coalition’s efforts to fight insurgents using Pakistan territory as a launching pad for raids into Afghanistan

Closer to the ground, Gates also will use his visits to hear from the troops fighting the war.

“There’s nothing like going into theater, seeing for yourself, talking to the guys,” Morrell said.

Gates’ talks with troops are “the most important aspect of these trips, in his estimation,” Morrell said. “If there is anything that they need that they’re not getting, he wants to know about it.”

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