"Everyone knows we face significant challenges in Afghanistan, as does the Afghan government," Gates said. "By the same token, the Taliban do not hold any land," and lose every real engagement with NATO or U.S. forces. "So the notion that things are out of control in Afghanistan or that we're sliding toward a disaster I think is far too pessimistic."
President Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's U.S.-backed leader, has said he intends to run again. Registration has begun but is spotty, and the Taliban is expected try to disrupt registration and voting.
Gates, speaking alongside other nations with significant fighting forces in Afghanistan's heavily contested south, said the United States has not made exact decisions about the timing of additional brigades beyond one planned for January.
The Bush administration has announced plans to send 3,500 additional Marines to Afghanistan before year's end and then an Army brigade of about 5,000 soldiers in January. As many as three additional Army brigades could follow in the months after that.
The increases are in line with promises President-elect Barack Obama made during his campaign to pull forces from what he calls a misbegotten Iraq war and concentrate on a neglected Afghanistan. The Bush administration denies it shortchanged the Afghan war in favor of Iraq.
Currently, the U.S. has 31,000 troops in Afghanistan. There also are 31,000 troops from NATO countries and other allies.
The situation in Afghanistan now is the worst since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001 and the country is in danger of a "downward spiral" into violence and chaos, according to an intelligence report draft described to The Associated Press last month.
The National Intelligence Estimate said Afghanistan's deterioration has accelerated alarmingly since summer.
This has been the deadliest year for American forces since the war began, with well above 100 killed. The toll reflects both the increased number of American troops fighting in Afghanistan and the insurgency's increasing potency.
More than twice as many Americans have died in Afghanistan than in Iraq since May, even though there are more than five times the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.
The White House has accelerated a review of how to reverse the security slide and shore up Karzai's fragile government.
Top U.S. generals, European leaders and analysts say the blame lies to the east, in militant sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan. As long as those areas remain havens where fighters arm, train, recruit and plot increasingly sophisticated ambushes, the Afghan war will continue to sour.
Afghanistan was the launching pad for al-Qaida's terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the U.S. accused the then-ruling Taliban of harboring al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden. The U.S. invasion a month later quickly drove the Taliban out of power, but the Islamic militants have persisted and regrouped.
Critics of the management of the Afghan war frequently point to the way NATO and the United States have carved up jurisdiction - one country working in one province, another next door, myriad development plans that sometimes conflict with military objectives and an overall lack of coherent planning.
In some respects the meeting Gates attended Friday exemplifies the piece-by-piece war strategy. It involved only nations with significant fighting forces in one part of the country - the south where fighting is heaviest.
U.S. officials traveling with Gates suggested he is pushing back against further segmentation. He told even strong allies that the additional U.S. forces will support regional war goals, not those affecting any particular province.
Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay told reporters that more forces are needed in Afghanistan, as Obama has said he wants, but MacKay pointed to other NATO nations as the best place to find them.