COMBAT OUTPOST KOWALL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on Tuesday that the United States faces an “acid test” this spring and summer to determine if gains in the war are sustainable.
He also said that there are unlikely to be any American troop withdrawals in July from the hard-fought southern part of the country. President Obama has ordered that withdrawals begin in July and his commanders are determining where they will come from and how many there will be. Mr. Gates’s trip here is in part to participate in those discussions.
On the second day of a two-day trip to Afghanistan, Mr. Gates traveled first to the bloodiest spot in the war, the Taliban narcotics center of Sangin in Helmand Province, and then to a village in the Arghandab district of Kandahar Province, where a fledgling program to arm local Afghan police is underway. Both are in the south.
In an attempt to show that the United States is making progress, Mr. Gates strolled for 15 minutes without body armor — although surrounded by a heavily armed security force — down a dirt road to the Arghandab village of Tabin, where he met with eight new recruits of the Afghan Local Police.
The program, begun three months ago, was at first opposed by President Hamid Karzai, who feared it would create anti-government militias. But American commanders pushed it as a way to encourage Afghan men to defend their own villages instead of relying on American forces.
So far, 4,500 officers are enrolled. Mr. Gates said he was encouraged by the program, although he cautioned that progress in the war is “fragile and reversible.”
Tuesday was the first time he said that the troop withdrawals would probably not come from the south. Throughout the day, Mr. Gates and the commanders he met with predicted heavy fighting this spring and summer as the weather warms and the Taliban regroup from their traditional winter hiatus.
In Sangin, where 29 American Marines have been killed and 175 wounded in the last five months, the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jason Morris, said his Marines had killed some 400 insurgents since October and that the fighting had abated. But he said he was preparing for a new round.
“We’re expecting the violence to pick up in the next few weeks,” he said. The losses among the 900 men and women in the in Sangin are the heaviest losses of any battalion in the nearly decade-long war.
“Your success has come at a terrible price,” Mr. Gates told the Marines in remarks at Forward Operating Base Jackson in Sangin. Last t November, Second Lt. Robert Kelly, 29, the son of Mr. Gates’ new senior military adviser, Lt. Gen. John Kelly, was killed in Sangin.