WASHINGTON - The top US defence leader said Monday that U.S.-led forces were making steady progress in their efforts in a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan but faced stiffer resistance than expected and the operation would take longer than hoped.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon the efforts against the Taliban were "messy" and "incredibly wasteful," as was war in general. "But that doesn't mean it's not worth the cost."
Mullen said the battle and the broader war can be won with the proper resources and strategy.
"As you've all been seeing, we're making steady, if perhaps a bit slower than anticipated, progress," Mullen said.
Mullen also expressed regret for a NATO airstrike that killed at least 27 Afghan civilians. It was the third coalition strike this month to kill noncombatants and drew a sharp rebuke from Afghanistan's government about endangering civilians.
At the same briefing, Defence Secretary Robert Gates defended the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, saying McChrystal keenly understands the need to do the utmost to avoid civilian casualties and has made that a top priority.
"I have confidence in his judgment," Gates said.
For 10 days, U.S. and Afghan troops have been fighting holdout Taliban forces in an effort to secure the southern town of Marjah in Helmand province.
"The situation remains serious but is no longer deteriorating," Gates said.
On a related subject, Gates said recent arrests of high-level Taliban fighters by Pakistan marks "real progress" by the Islamabad government and "another positive indication" of its commitment to stabilizing its border with Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, Pakistani authorities arrested the No. 2 Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi. Also arrested are a pair of Taliban "shadow governors" from two Afghan provinces and several other militant suspects linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Gates told reporters that "what we are seeing is the importance of operations on both sides of the border."
When asked whether the arrests might help turn the tide in the eight-year-war, Mullen cautioned against putting too much stock in any single event. He said "it's just too early."
"The long view here is the best view," Mullen said.
The Afghanistan Council of Ministers strongly condemned the airstrike, calling it "unjustifiable."
It said reports indicated that NATO planes fired at a convoy of three vehicles, killing at least 27 people, including four women and a child, and injuring 12 others.
Associated Press writer Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.