Gates praises troops in southern Afghanistan

Afghanistan: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a hard-hit battle unit Tuesday that its heavy losses have helped the U.S. begin to push back against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

Gates was visiting a small, remote outpost 30 miles north of Kandahar, where the Fort Lewis, Washington-based Stryker unit has lost 22 men and suffered an additional 62 wounded since arriving here last summer.

The latest injuries came Monday night, and the latest death three days ago.

Gates praised the 800-soldier unit and told the troops that as the fight shifts toward securing Kandahar itself later this year, they will again be "at the top of the spear."

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates got a closer view of the Afghanistan war Tuesday, with a visit to troops fighting the Taliban in the country's rugged south.

Gates flew to Kandahar early Tuesday for meetings with U.S. and British generals overseeing the current military campaign in Marjah.

Gates presented Silver Stars for valor to two Army aviators before scheduled visits with U.S. forces at small forward operating bases elsewhere in the south.

On Monday, the Pentagon chief said the progress made in the Marjah offensive, launched last month, is encouraging, but he stopped short of saying the war is at a turning point. The Marjah campaign routed most Taliban fighters from a town they once controlled, without a high casualty toll for U.S. troops and the Afghan security forces fighting alongside them.

"People still need to understand there is some very hard fighting, very hard days ahead," Gates told reporters.

Gates met Monday in Kabul with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. McChrystal said preparations have begun for a crucial campaign to assert Afghan government control over Kandahar, spiritual home of the Taliban.

Gates traveled to Afghanistan to check on the progress of the war's expansion, directed late last year by President Barack Obama.

The 30,000 additional U.S. forces Obama ordered are now arriving and most will be in place by summer. Without being specific, McChrystal suggested that any heavy fighting in Kandahar will wait until more U.S. and NATO troops are ready.