| HELMAND, Afghanistan
HELMAND, Afghanistan Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday the United States was not about to pull up stakes in Afghanistan and a gradual withdrawal of combat troops would be done slowly and responsibly.
The U.S. administration faced a delicate balance in deciding how many troops to withdraw -- a decision expected next month -- and the number settled on should not "cause our allies to race to the exits because they think we are," Gates said during a visit to Afghanistan.
"We don't want the Afghans or any others in the region to think we're pulling up stakes and taking (off) out of here," Gates said when asked about the drawdown by a soldier at a forward operating base in southern Helmand province.
General David Petraeus, commander of the 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, will soon make recommendations to President Barack Obama, following Obama's pledge last year to start bringing U.S. combat troops home.
That commitment followed Obama's December 2009 decision to send 30,000 extra U.S. troops in a bid to arrest a growing Taliban-led insurgency.
"General Petraeus has not yet made his recommendations to the president. I know he'll present him with options and the risks associated with each of those options," Gates said.
Fighting increased dramatically, particularly in the Taliban heartland in the south, since the last of the extra troops arrived last summer. Gates said it also had to be decided how much longer those "surge" troops would remain.
U.S. commanders say significant gains have been made in halting the Taliban's momentum in the south since then, but violence has flared elsewhere in Afghanistan, particularly in the east and with complex attacks in major cities.
Pentagon and White House officials are tight-lipped about the size of the initial withdrawal. Obama is expected to announce his decision sometime in mid-July.
Gates said great strides had been made in training enough Afghan police and soldiers adequately to allow for the gradual withdrawal through to the end of 2014, according to an agreement reached at a NATO summit last December.
"LEAVE THE SHOOTERS TO LAST"
Gates described the July drawdown decision and the withdrawal of the 30,000 surge troops as "bookends."
"At what point do you bring out the surge? I think that is the second bookend, if you will, in the decision that I think the president is going to need to make over the course of the next few weeks," Gates said.
At the start of this year, with violence raging across Afghanistan after nearly a decade of war, an initial pullout of around 5,000 troops had been anticipated.
With U.S. commanders now trumpeting the success of their offensives in the south, some current and former officials say Obama could announce a pullout of at least 10,000.
Some U.S. lawmakers and analysts, however, have questioned the wisdom of bringing out any troops at all so soon after security gains were made and with doubts lingering about poorly equipped and minimally trained Afghan security forces.
Asked about the drawdown by a soldier at another base in neighboring Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, Gates said discussions would likely begin when he returned from his current trip, his 12th and last as head of the Pentagon.
He said progress in "degrading the Taliban" had to be maintained and would help determine the decision on the size of the initial drawdown. He also hinted that he would prefer frontline troops to remain.
"If it were up to me, I'd leave the shooters to last," he told troops at the base outside Kandahar city.
Gates, who steps down at the end of June, landed on Saturday on a trip mainly to bid farewell to U.S. troops.
The troop drawdown coincides with a growing recognition of the need for a political settlement, which would include negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgents prepared to renounce violence and ties with al Qaeda.
Slow-moving attempts at establishing communications with the Taliban, leading eventually to more substantive talks, have been under way for well over a year.