U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates appealed for patience with an unpopular war and said Saturday that only modest U.S. troop reductions would make sense this summer in a still unstable Afghanistan.
On his 12th and final visit to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief, Gates held out the possibility of a turning point in the war by year's end. But Gates, who's retiring June 30, 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, now in its 10th year, were on the agenda for Gates' meetings Saturday with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander here, and with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. A decision on U.S. troop reductions is expected in the next couple of weeks.
Gates stressed the effectiveness of U.S.-led NATO military operations against the Taliban over the past year, after President Barack Obama ordered an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Gains have been notable in the south, the heartland of the Taliban movement.
"I believe that if we can hold on to the territory that has been recaptured from the Taliban ... and perhaps expand that security, that we will be in position toward the end of this year to perhaps have a successful opening to reconciliation" with the Taliban — "or at least be in a position where we can say we've turned the corner here in Afghanistan," Gates said.
"Making any changes prior to that time would be premature," he added.
Together with remarks he made about Afghanistan earlier Saturday at a security conference in Singapore, Gates' statements suggest that he worries that large U.S. troop cuts this year would run the risk of undermining battlefield gains and jeopardize a NATO-endorsed plan to remove all foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by 2015. The White House is pushing for bigger reductions than are favored by the military.
Gates also is concerned that a U.S. troop withdrawal could leaders other members of the coalition, known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to quit or sharply reduce their participation.
"There will be no rush to the exits," he said.
In Singapore, Gates said the United States and its allies fighting in Afghanistan will have to keep up military pressure on the Taliban in order to eventually reach a peace deal.
"The Taliban are probably a part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point," he said, so they could have a political role in the future. But to get to the point of a possible negotiated settlement, he said, the Taliban first will have to see a more severe reversal of their battlefield fortunes.
Gates said in Singapore that "perhaps this winter" some form of political negotiation could begin, but only if ISAF keeps up heavy military pressure to force the insurgents to the table.
"The prospects for a political settlement do not become real until the Taliban and our other adversaries begin to conclude that they cannot win militarily," Gates said.
In Kabul, Gates spoke at a news conference with President Hamid Karzai, who repeatedly stressed his anger at civilian deaths caused by airstrikes. The president also criticized night raids and detentions of innocent people.
"We cannot take this anymore," Karzai said, making no mention of civilian deaths attributed to Taliban fighters.
Gates offered conciliatory words about unintended civilian deaths and injuries.
"I am keenly aware that some of these (ISAF) military operations have at times impacted the Afghan people in unwelcome ways, from minor but grating inconveniences to, in some rare but tragic cases, civilians accidentally killed or injured — losses we mourn and profoundly regret," he said.
"But we also know that the vast majority of civilian casualties are caused by the Taliban, who intentionally target innocent men, women and children with their terror attacks. And few Afghan citizens want a return to the cruel and despotic regime that so devastated this country during the 1990s."
Karzai said he, too, hopes the Taliban will undertake a "rethinking" of its relationship with al-Qaida in the aftermath of the May 2 U.S. raid that killed bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the group's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, gave bin Laden haven. When American forces invaded in October 2001 in retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks, the Taliban were driven from power and bin Laden escaped into Pakistan.
Gates also said the Afghans must take more responsibility for their own security if a planned withdrawal of American and other foreign combat troops by the end of 2014 is to succeed.
He said the international military commitment to Afghanistan is strong and durable but "not infinite, in either time or resources."
During his Afghanistan visit, Gates planned to travel around the country to meet with soldiers and Marines.
Some in Congress argue that the war's cost, which now tops $100 billion a year, is excessive and unsustainable. Gates has disputed that reasoning.
"Success of the mission should override everything else because the most costly thing of all would be to fail," he said before flying to Afghanistan.
"Now that does not preclude adjustments in the mission or in the strategy. But ultimately the objective has to be success in the mission that has been set forth by the president," he said.