Mandel Ngan/Reuters
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Afghan President Hamid Karzai (r.) arrive for a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on March 7. Gates arrived in Afghanistan on Monday at a time of increased strain between Kabul and its Western backers and with important security transition milestones looming.

Why is Robert Gates making a surprise visit to Afghanistan?

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived Monday in Afghanistan. The visit is expected to shape decisions about the gradual US troop drawdown slated to begin this summer.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Afghanistan for a surprise visit Monday at a critical time for war strategists in the White House. As heavy fighting is expected to resume as the weather improves, Mr. Gates will likely be assessing the scope of the troop drawdown scheduled to begin this July. Defense officials, however, have been quick to insist that this is not a decisionmaking trip.

When the fighting season came to a close in Afghanistan last fall, commanders and politicians lauded gains against the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Still, they claimed the real measure of progress would be made when fighting resumed this spring and the military power of the Taliban became apparent.

Now that it is spring, Washington appears to be following up on that assessment. The primary goal of the trip is to get a better sense of how far the United States has come in the past three months, according to Mr. Gates's spokesperson. Gates is slated to meet with soldiers and travel to the volatile southern and eastern areas of the country, and bring his observations back to Washington.

IN PICTURES: Fighting continues in Afghanistan

What Gates could find

Since Gates’s last visit in December, Afghanistan has seen an unusual amount of military activity for the winter, a fact that International Security Assistance Force officials attribute to a greater number of insurgents who stayed in the country to fight, rather than spending the winter resting in Pakistan or elsewhere outside Afghanistan. ISAF officials say that they believe this may give them the upper hand this spring and summer.

“This year is going to be a lot different than past spring offensives where insurgents reinfiltrated,” says US Air Force Lt. Col. John Dorrian, an ISAF spokesman. “Because there are more insurgents who are active this winter, we have maintained a much higher operations tempo than we have in past years.... Insurgent leaders were here and active and that enabled us to track them and attempt to capture and kill them, preferably capture.”

Gates will also likely review the strength of Afghan security forces who will eventually replace international troops. Although these forces have grown in number – there are 70,000 more Afghan security forces today than there were at this time last year – many Afghans still question their capability.

“The reality is this: The Afghan National Army, the Afghan national police, and other related security apparatus in this country are not yet cohesive enough to be called national entities. They still consist of regional and tribal entities. Even the command and control at mid-level in the police and Army, and NDS [National Directorate of Security] are politically oriented,” says Daoud Sultanzoy, a former member of parliament from Ghazni Province who is contesting election results.

Mr. Sultanzoy adds that there are still serious questions about the level of education of members of the Afghan security forces and the equipment made available to them.

Clues on drawdown?

Presently, it remains unclear just how many of the 97,000 US troops commanders will remove from Afghanistan, and Gates has yet to give any indication. Officials insist that Gates has not come to Afghanistan to make any final determinations.

“This is not a decisionmaking trip,” Gates’s chief spokesman, Geoff Morrell, told reporters traveling with the official Pentagon delegation. “This will certainly inform [Gates] on making those decisions in coming months.”

Later this month, President Hamid Karzai is scheduled to announce his plan to shift responsibility from coalition forces to Afghan troops in some areas of the country. This may provide some window into the new relationship between the US and international forces after July.

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