KABUL, Afghanistan -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived in Kabul yesterday for his second visit to the Afghan capital since becoming the Pentagon chief, saying that although he believes progress is being made in the country, he wants to ensure there is no slackening of effort.
Gates first visited Afghanistan in January, just weeks into his tenure, after which he expressed guarded optimism, saying the situation on the ground was better than he had expected.
Senior Defense Department officials familiar with Gates' thinking said he believes the situation has improved since then, despite a rise in violence in the restive south.
"Although the level of violence is actually up, I think that in terms of what we were concerned the Taliban might be able to accomplish, things are looking better than they were, certainly [better] than when [Gates] was here in January," said one senior Defense official who requested anonymity.
Speaking to reporters on his plane en route to Kabul, Gates said he planned to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai as well as the new U.S. military commander, Army Gen. Dan K. McNeil, and new U.S. Ambassador William Wood to get their assessments on whether coalition efforts in Afghanistan are being properly coordinated.
He expressed concern that with 42 different countries and 12 nongovernmental organizations working on nation-building and reconstruction, it remained possible that officials were not creating an "overall strategy" to deal with security and development issues.
"I think actually things are slowly, cautiously headed in the right direction. I'm concerned to keep it moving that way," Gates said.
Thirty-nine U.S. troops and 39 other coalition soldiers have been killed this year in Afghanistan, about on pace with casualty figures the year before, according to the Web site icasualties.org, which tracks casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. Defense officials said the long-promised Taliban spring offensive appears to have sputtered and argued that the NATO-led security mission has pushed Taliban fighters out of their previous strongholds and captured key enemy leaders.
But the senior Defense official added that violence this spring was higher than at the same time last year. He expressed concern that once the poppy harvest is completed in the coming months, more fighters will return to the battlefield.
"What I'm concerned about is the follow-up," the official said. "How are we going to hold those areas where we've had success?"
Adding to the concern is the recent appearance of "explosively formed projectiles," sophisticated roadside bombs that can penetrate armor and previously were found only in Iraq.
Iran is believed to play a role in exporting such weapons, and Marine Gen. Peter Pace said over the weekend that there is evidence that Iranian-made weapons are flowing into Afghanistan - although it remains unclear whether the government in Tehran is behind the inflows.
U.S. officials have yet to provide any evidence publicly of Iranian involvement.
Gates has pressed both European and Asian allies to step up their contributions to Afghanistan, but the North Atlantic Treaty Organization remains about 3,000 troops short of its stated requirements. Many of those additional forces would be used as trainers for the Afghan army and police forces.
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.