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WASHINGTON — Steps taken over the next 18 months to defeat the Taliban and other extremists will ultimately decide whether the war in Afghanistan is being won, the Pentagon's top leaders said Tuesday.
In a bluntly-worded response to senators, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the war intensified in 2006 — in large part as a result of Pakistan's peace deals with militant groups that pushed the Taliban back over the Afghan border.
"As this problem became worse in terms of the violence caused by the Taliban coming across the border from Pakistan, I think that it's self-evident that we were under-resourced to deal with it," Gates told a Senate Appropriations panel.
He added, however, that the Pakistani army has since stepped up its battle against extremists in the Swat Valley and elsewhere in the nation's northwest provinces. He called it "an extremely important development."
Gates is taking a closer look at the Afghan conflict this week. He heads to Europe later Tuesday to discuss the war with NATO allies and other nations with troops fighting in Afghanistan's volatile South.
He and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen told senators they're more optimistic now than in recent months about efforts to combat insurgents and extremists along the remote Afghan-Pakistan border.
But, Mullen said, "I think the next 12 to 18 months will really tell the tale."
Gates emphasized that he did not mean the Afghan campaign would achieve success in that time, but rather that officials hoped to "see a shift in the momentum" by then.
"It's very important for us to be able to show the American people that we are moving forward ... to show some shift in momentum," Gates said. "This is a long-term commitment, but I believe the American people will be willing to sustain this endeavor if they believe this is not just a stalemate."
He also described himself as "very sensitive" about the number of U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan. The Pentagon chief previously has said he is reluctant to sent many more soldiers to Afghanistan beyond the 68,000 already planned. There are 58,000 U.S. troops there now.
Gates will be in the Netherlands later this week for meetings with defense chiefs from Britain, Canada, Australia and other nations fighting alongside the Americans in the South, where the United States is adding some 10,000 Marines and soldiers now. Afghanistan is expected to dominate a regular session of NATO defense ministers later in the week.
Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.