US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates flew to southern Afghanistan yesterday to say goodbye to US troops fighting to defeat Taliban insurgents in their strongholds.
Gates, who is due to finish his stint as Pentagon chief at the end of the month, arrived for a farewell tour on Saturday, as US President Barack Obama considers the scale and pace of troop withdrawals due to start in next month.
He said a key focus of his trip would be saying farewell to some of the roughly 90,000 US troops stationed in the war-torn country as part of a 130,000-strong NATO-led foreign force battling a Taliban-led insurgency.
“It will be my last chance as defense secretary to look them each in the eye and thank them for their service and sacrifice — on behalf of the future of Afghanistan, the stability of this key region and the security of the United States,” Gates told a news conference on Saturday after arriving in Kabul.
Yesterday, he traveled to the giant Kandahar airfield en route to military bases in the south.
The region contains some of the country’s most dangerous battlefields and was the focus of the surge of 30,000 extra troops announced in 2009 in a bid to turn around the war.
The Pentagon boss’s visit -coincides with a crucial moment in the international force’s war strategy as the Obama administration weighs the scale of a planned troop drawdown starting next month.
On Saturday, Gates signaled that the US administration planned no dramatic shift in the near decade-long war, predicting a “modest” troop withdrawal from next month and saying it was “premature” to change course.
Gates’s meetings with soldiers have become increasingly emotional as he contemplates the burden of rising casualties in an increasingly unpopular war.
As he arrived in Kabul on Saturday, the International Security Assistance Force announced that four more foreign soldiers had been killed by a bomb in eastern Afghanistan, taking the death toll this year to at least 224.
It did not reveal their nationality.
Gates has touted tentative progress in the war effort, especially in Taliban heartlands in the south, but the outcome of the NATO-led mission and the Kabul government’s ability to take the lead on security remains in question.
He told Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government and Afghan security forces at a press conference on Saturday that they needed to “step up” in order to make the transition process starting in July a success.
Gates also raised the possibility of peace talks by the end of the year with the Islamist insurgency, but said more time was needed to gauge the effects of military pressure and the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Calls for a swifter drawdown have mounted since US Navy SEAL commandos gunned down bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout last month.