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U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates pins a medal for bravery on a U.S. soldier at Forward Operating Base Howz-E-Madad in Kandahar province in Afghanistan on Wednesday. ((Win McNamee/Reuters))

After two days of shuttling to U.S. bases across Afghanistan, Defence Secretary Robert Gates declared Wednesday that Washington's year-old surge strategy for the war is working and the goal of pulling U.S. troops out of major combat by 2014 can be met.

Gates's assertion came after he met with commanders at U.S. bases in the south and others along the Pakistan border, where troops are struggling to battle a continuing flow of insurgents crossing the border from Pakistan.

It also followed a series of sombre ceremonies that drove home the human cost of the war: Gates pinned medals on troops who were wounded in the fight; some had thrown themselves into the line of fire to save others.

"Coalition and Afghan forces are suffering more casualties, but there is no denying that the security climate is improving and that the sacrifices of Afghan and coalition troops are achieving greater safety and security for both our nations," Gates, flanked by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told reporters at a news conference.

U.S. President Barack Obama wants to begin pulling American troops in June 2011, as they begin transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces. Senior military officials said Wednesday the earlier transitions will probably include districts in the south — an improved but still worrisome region that spawned the Taliban. One likely possibility is Nawa in Helmand province.

Gates said he is going back to Washington convinced that "we will be able to achieve the key goals laid out by President Obama last year."

Need for training, equipment

While Karzai also spoke positively about the transition, he made clear his country needs far more equipment and training from the U.S. to meet security needs and turn his army into an institution that can endure after the international community leaves.

Karzai said the U.S. has said he will get thousands of armoured vehicles, personnel carriers and other equipment, but he maintained that the country would need much more, including air power, to be a strong ally than can defend itself.

The transition of security responsibilities from the U.S. to Afghanistan is a cornerstone of the Obama administration's commitment to begin withdrawing U.S. forces next June. But it will hinge on the ability of U.S. and Afghan forces  to keep the Taliban at bay next spring, when the insurgents traditionally revive their attacks.