Image: Robert M. Gates
Haraz N. Ghanbari  /  AP
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates meets with service members at Forward Operating Base Walton, on Sunday, June 5, in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
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updated 6/5/2011 9:57:24 AM ET 2011-06-05T13:57:24

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.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Gates recommends modest troop reductions in Afghanistan

  1. Closed captioning of: Gates recommends modest troop reductions in Afghanistan

    >>> new indications that the u.s. may be leaving more troops in after began stan this summer than previously expected. roberts gates is on his final visit before retiring and is recommending modest troop reductions. we are joined from the white house with another look. good morning, athena .

    >> good morning.

    >> let's take a look at white house reaction and timeline?

    >> reporter: the timeline remains july of this year. the big question mark is what that makeup will look like this is about wanting to hold on to the gains that nato forces have made in terms of territory and security. gates said 20 years ago, a tragic miscalculations, the u.s. walked away from afghanistan after the soviet withdrawal, thinking that what happens there doesn't impact our national security and that tragic miscalculation was exposed by the events of september 11th . military commanders don't want to see too much of a drawdown too quickly. they believe you have to keep the pressure on the taliban in order to bring them to the negotiating table to have political reconciliation. which everyone believes is necessary for the future stability of afghanistan . when gates first arrived yesterday in afghan stan, he talked about the idea of reconciliation. he said perhaps toward the end of this year, if they had been successful, nato forces and afghan forces, holding on to territory and expanding on security there, perhaps toward the end of the year, they could have a successful opening with respect to the taliban, or at least be in a position to say we've turned a corner in afghanistan . these are some of the calculations going into the decision. that's ult may mately going to be a recommendation from david petraeus . gates' trip comes ahead of the monday monthly meeting that the president is going to be having with national security team on afghanistan and pakistan. we can expect all of these issues and the questions to come up, alex.

    >> athena , i want to ask you to comment on this. i want to get the latest disa pointing jobs numbers. let's listen to austin gould, what he head had to say earlier this morning.

    >> don't make too much of any one month's job report. because they are highly variable. we have moved a long way from when the economy is in a rescue mode. the private sector is it in free fall, and government is the only thing standing between us and falling into another great depression.

    >> so is this reflective of the line the white house is taking?

    >> this has been their line all along, really, alex. one of the ways they try to manage expectations, even when numbers are pretty good, like back in february and march, where we saw more jobs being added. even then they said these are volatile. monthly reports are subject to revision. we don't want to read too much into it. trying to give some leeway here. of course they are concerned. everyone looking at jobs numbers to see if may was an aberration. the larger point is that the economy is on the rebound. it's going to become more and more difficult if we still continue to see the low numbers of jobs added. 54,000 jobs added was far, far. maybe a quarter of what's needed.

    >> nbc athena jones at the white house . thank you.

    >> thanks.

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