Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' surprise visit to Afghanistan Monday likely left him with a sobering assessment of just how far U.S. and NATO forces have to go before a scheduled drawdown of U.S. forces begins in July, according to Americans in that country. Many U.S. troops and Afghan officials are concerned that war efforts are lagging and that the Obama administration, desperate to begin ridding itself of an unpopular war, is not listening.
Gates made a sincere apology to President Hamid Karzai for the deaths of nine Afghan boys mistakenly killed in a NATO air strike last week.
Those deaths added to already strained relations between U.S. and Afghan officials who have gained little traction in attempting to dismantle a growing Taliban insurgency, said James Carafano, senior defense analyst for the Heritage Foundation.
Carafano, who has visited Afghanistan on a number of occasions, said Karzai is using the episode to gain "respect and honor" among his people. "Karzai will demand some kind of face-saving measure to show he is in charge," he said. "The U.S. will have to negotiate something that makes him look strong but does not comprise operations."
Troops say some of those compromises have put U.S. soldiers at risk and hampered the war effort. Petraeus, who is expected to deliver his assessment of the war effort to Congress this month, told lawmakers in June that he was reviewing possible changes to rules for engaging enemy fighters.
Those rules, according to soldiers and Marines, have the good intention of lowering civilian casualties but hold them back from fighting the enemy.
A U.S. military official in Afghanistan said the recent "deaths of children is a tragedy for everyone" and disrupts efforts to build trust with the Afghan people.
He added, however, that corruption in the Afghan government also "hampers efforts to build trust because despite everything Karzai says, the majority of Afghans don't trust him either."
"Unfortunately, our concessions to the Afghan government have also been an extended tragedy in this war," the military official added. "We legitimize a corrupt government and the Afghan people don't know who to trust or who to believe in."
Another U.S. military official in the region said compromising has led to overly strict rules of engagement that in the long run have been detrimental to troops and used by insurgent leaders to stay one step ahead of NATO. "Taliban leaders use our rules of engagement against us and many times put children and women in harm's way when they are meeting, so we are paralyzed -- unable to do anything except watch them walk away," the official said. "The problem is the Taliban know our playbook -- our game plan -- and they use it to their benefit."
One Afghan aide told The Washington Examiner that a major problem is "many times commanders on the ground have a difficult time getting the right information on insurgent activity" because of failures to communicate. The welter of languages in Afghanistan makes it difficult to find enough interpreters and to have them where they are needed.
Pashtun and Dari are two of the most common languages but most of the interpreters speak Dari and "do not translate Pashtun accurately. Inaccurate information can lead to these mistakes as well," the Afghan aide said. "It is something [interpreters] have been complaining about for a very long time."
He said that commanders do not have Pashtun interpreters they need in the south because "they don't have the clearances or they just don't trust them."
The failure to understand the Pashtun culture has also set back war efforts in the southern provinces, according to a number of experts who have been there.
Retired U.S. Army Major Gen. Timothy Haake, who served with Special Forces, admitted the difficulties of balancing the fight against the enemy, protecting innocent civilians and working to disrupt a growing insurgency make the "drawdown date difficult."
That is likely what Gates is hearing as he meets with local commanders in Afghanistan. It will be critical for him to take that message back to Washington and present a blunt picture of the realities on the ground there.
"As the commanders assess the situation they are going to be realistic about where we are today in the war effort," Haake said. "Listening to the boots on the ground and the Afghan people will be an important part of that assessment."
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.