NATO leaders declared Friday that the alliance had regained the initiative in the Afghan war, promising that the gains could result in a handover of security responsibilities in some parts of the country to local authorities by year's end.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged his alliance counterparts to seize the moment and to provide the resources needed to accelerate efforts to bolster Afghan security forces. NATO wants Afghan troops to replace its forces in the war against the Taliban, thus providing the linchpin of the alliance's exit strategy.
"Our effort is moving in right direction (but) the road ahead will be long and hard," Gates said after a meeting of NATO's 28 defense ministers. "I hope that by the end of year, we will be able to demonstrate that we are making progress throughout the country."
Gates urged countries who are not committing combat troops to Afghanistan to contribute more instructors to train the expanding Afghan police and army. More trainers would step up "the pace that we can proceed with transition," he said.
NATO officials say they have been stymied because it is difficult to find qualified people to train foreign forces.
Earlier Friday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told ministers that the Afghan government and international authorities would soon agree on how to start handing over responsibility for security, "province by province."
His optimism comes despite troubles with the military campaign.
The campaign to blunt Taliban influence in Kandahar, birthplace of the insurgency, is unfolding more slowly than once planned, top U.S. and NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal conceded on Thursday. Even so, McChrystal said he is confident he can demonstrate in the next six months that the war plan is working.
Kandahar is the keystone of McChrystal's plan to protect Afghans from the Taliban and offer the U.S.-backed government in Kabul a workable alternative.
The delay in the Kandahar offensive came amid an inconclusive campaign to reassert government authority in the provincial town of Marjah.
Still, Gates said the United States and NATO are "recapturing the initiative" in Afghanistan and beginning to turn the war around, offering a rosier perspective than usual despite delays in the defining campaign of the new battle plan.
"No one would deny that the signs of progress are tentative at this point," he told reporters.
Gates said the focus on difficult fighting in Kandahar and the rest of the Taliban strongholds across southern Afghanistan misses the larger point that the allies are beginning to gain the upper hand.
"If you talk to people who have been there for awhile ... their view is that the situation is slowly beginning to improve and that we are recapturing the initiative," he said.
Gates also said he has not set an unreasonable task for his McChrystal by saying that the American public demands progress by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, NATO announced it had opened an alternate supply route to Afghanistan via Russia and central Asia — a critical development that gives the alliance the ability to bypass the previous ambush-prone main routes through Pakistan.
A statement said the first trainload of supplies for the alliance's 122,000-strong force arrived in Afghanistan on June 9.
Until now, only individual alliance members, such as Germany and the United States, were allowed to use the so-called northern route. Although Russia offered to open its territory to NATO as a whole, negotiations over transit rights between the alliance and Central Asian states took several months to complete.
The opening of the route is important because it signals Russian willingness to indirectly support the NATO-led mission. Moscow has been warmer to the mission's success in recent years, fearing that a NATO defeat in Afghanistan would cause further problems for Russia.
Associated Press writer Eileen Shim contributed to this report.
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