WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said U.S.-led forces must gain ground against insurgents in Afghanistan by next summer to avoid a public perception the war is unwinnable, the Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday.
While noting that the Taliban militants would not be defeated within a year, Gates told the newspaper it was critical that the U.S. military and its allies show they were making progress in the Asian nation.
"After the Iraq (war) experience, nobody is prepared to have a long slog where it is not apparent we are making headway," Gates said in an interview. "The troops are tired. The American people are pretty tired," he said.
The U.S. public's souring attitude toward the war in Iraq, where more than 4,300 U.S. troops have been killed since 2003, cut popular support for former President George W. Bush and is cited by some as a factor for his party's huge losses in the 2008 election.
The Obama administration has shifted its strategy to make the battle in Afghanistan a higher priority.
Washington is sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan in a bid to counter the Taliban, who now control a large swath of territory, and it has named a new commander to lead the NATO-backed effort.
"This is where we are really getting back into the fight," said Gates, who is overseeing the new strategy.
After U.S.-led forces drove out the Taliban in 2001 for harboring al Qaeda leaders responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the Islamist extremists retreated to havens inside Pakistan, regrouped and launched an insurgency.
Their success in the past three years has caught the United States off guard and prompted concerns of a wider rebellion that could engulf Afghanistan and further destabilize Pakistan, its neighbor and nuclear power.
The additional U.S. troops will reinforce roughly 70,000 international troops already in Afghanistan. NATO leaders also have agreed to boost troop levels by 3,000 to provide security ahead of an August presidential election.
U.S. and British troops recently launched an operation across southern Afghanistan to try to recapture territory from the Taliban and improve security, but they have suffered heavy losses in the offensive, largely because the militants are using powerful roadside bombs to deadly effect.
(Writing by Paul Simao)