FORWARD OPERATING BASE WALTON, Afghanistan — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed his concern about pulling troops out of Afghanistan too soon as he embarked Sunday on two days of farewell visits to remote U.S. bases in this war-weary country.
He began by flying to a base near Kandahar City in southern Afghanistan, where he was greeted by soldiers and lunched with junior enlisted troops.
Gates is retiring at the end of the month and is assessing the situation on the ground ahead of an expected decision within weeks by President Barack Obama on the start of a U.S. troop withdrawal this summer.
The visit is Gates' 12th and final to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief.
In response to questions from a group of soldiers at Walton, Gates indicated he is concerned about pulling out combat troops too early in Obama's planned drawdown.
"For my money, the question is — if it were up to me, I would leave the shooters for last," he said. "Shooter" is military slang for a combat soldier.
Many in the military have said the first to withdraw should be support troops, not combat forces. But it's not clear if that would fit Obama's plan.
At Walton, Lt. Col. Clay Padgett, commander of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, seemed to share Gates' view that it's too early to make major changes on the ground. He told reporters that in the Kandahar City area where his troops operate it may take another six months to see whether progress in their efforts to get more Afghan civilians involved in local governance can continue after international forces begin leaving.
"It's either going to stick or it's going to go backward," Padgett said.
Speaking earlier in Kabul, Gates appealed for patience with the war, now in its 10th year, and said that only modest U.S. troop reductions would make sense this summer in a still unstable Afghanistan.
He held out the possibility of a turning point in the unpopular war by year's end. But Gates said much depends on whether the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden creates a new opening for peace negotiations with leaders of the Taliban insurgency.
This and other aspects of the war were on the agenda for Gates' meetings on Saturday with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander here, and with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.
Gates stressed the effectiveness of U.S.-led NATO military operations against the Taliban over the past year, after Obama ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Gains have been notable in the south, the heartland of the Taliban movement.
Gates also spoke Saturday at a news conference with President Hamid Karzai, who repeatedly stressed his anger at civilian deaths caused by airstrikes. He also criticized night raids and the jailing of innocent people.
"We cannot take this anymore," Karzai said. He made no mention of civilian deaths attributed to Taliban fighters.
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