Gates Foresees ‘Modest’ Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan in July
(CNSNews.com) – Amid reports that the Obama administration may be considering an accelerated troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday highlighted his views on the timing and nature of the coming reduction.
Paying a farewell visit to U.S. forces in Afghanistan before he leaves his post late this month, Gates said that if it were up to him, he would favor withdrawing support troops first and leaving the combat component – “the shooters” – in place for as long as possible.
“I would look for support people that we no longer need,” he said during a visit to Forward Operating Base Dwyer in Helmand province. “We’ve done a lot of construction – maybe those people aren’t needed. I’d try to maximize my combat capability as long as this process goes on.”
Gates acknowledged, however, that it was likely that “a mix” of support and combat troops would be withdrawn.
“We don’t have that many support people out here so it’s going to probably end up being a mix of some combat elements and some support elements.”
He said the decision on which units would be pulled out should be “up to the commanders in the field” – senior U.S. and coalition commander Army Gen. David Petraeus and the man President Obama has named to succeed him in September, Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen.
“If I were in Petraeus’ shoes or John Allen’s shoes – if it were six of one, a half dozen of the other – I’d opt to keep the shooters and take the support out first,” Gates said. “But the numbers are such that it’s going to have to be both.”
Earlier during the weekend visit, Gates referred to “modest” withdrawals beginning next month.
Addressing a joint press conference in Kabul with President Hamid Karzai, Gates highlighted successes in ejecting enemy forces from the Taliban heartland in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar and in building up the strength and quality of the Afghan national security forces.
“It seems to me that between the successes that we’ve already enjoyed and the increased capacity of the Afghan forces, we are in a position – based on conditions on the ground, as the president has said – to consider some modest drawdowns beginning in July,” he said.
“We have to remember our goals here,” Gates continued. “It was to deny the Taliban control of populated areas, disrupt and degrade the capabilities of al-Qaeda, degrade the capabilities of the Taliban, and enable the Afghan security forces to be able to take greater and greater responsibility for security in the country. I think we’ve made significant headway in each of those principal objectives.”
Visiting another base, Forward Operating Base Walton in Kandahar, Gates praised U.S. troops stationed there for their achievement in driving out “the Taliban from their home territory.”
“And if we can hold this territory and expand the bubble, then I think by the end of the year we can turn the corner in this conflict,” he said.
Gates also told the troops at Walton that questions needing to be asked about the drawdown included, “What can you take out, and what is the risk associated with that?”
“If it were up to me, I’d leave the shooters for last.”
There are currently some 150,000 U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, including the 30,000 additional U.S. troops deployed in line with Obama’s December 2009 announcement.
The stated U.S. goal has been to begin the process of pulling out troops in July and have it completed by the end of 2014.
The New York Times reported Sunday that the administration is considering the possibility of “steeper” reductions of troops than those discussed earlier, “with some officials arguing that such a change is justified by the rising cost of the war and the death of Osama bin Laden.”
En route to Afghanistan, Gates participated in an annual regional security conference in Singapore, where he was asked about Afghanistan and his thoughts on reconciliation and a political settlement involving the Taliban.
“I think there is a generally accepted view that nearly all conflicts of this kind eventually come to a close with some kind of a political settlement,” he conceded.
“But the reality is in my view, that the prospects for a political settlement do not become real until the Taliban and … the Afghans’ adversaries begin to conclude that they cannot win militarily.”
Gates said the Taliban could “potentially have a political role in the future,” but there were conditions to that.
“It is clear that the Taliban must sever their relationships with al Qaeda. They must agree to live under the Afghan constitution, and they must be willing to put their arms down in terms of living in a society where the government has the dominant monopoly over the use of force.”