WASHINGTON President Barack Obama's plan for pulling U.S. troops from Afghanistan will intensify risks in the thick of next year's fighting season, but Obama was right to factor in waning support at home for the war, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Reuters.
Gates, who steps down on Thursday after four and a half years as the U.S. defense chief, said Obama's advisers had put forward different options for gradually shrinking the 100,000-strong U.S. force in Afghanistan, where after almost a decade of war the Taliban remains a deadly, resilient enemy.
While the Pentagon's top brass argued for keeping the extra 33,000 troops Obama sent to Afghanistan until the end of 2012, Gates said, other advisers wanted them out as early as April, as patience wears thin for a war that now costs more than $110 billion a year.
Obama ultimately decided, in a move announced last week, to remove 10,000 troops this year and the remaining 23,000 troops of the surge force by September 2012.
"The president had a real tight-wire to walk in terms of balancing military risk and political risk," Gates said in an interview on the eve of his departure from the Pentagon.
"It wouldn't make any difference if the president said keep them there another two years if the Congress wouldn't vote the money ... Even some Republicans are beginning to talk about coming out sooner," Gates said.
The debate over the initial drawdown from Afghanistan has highlighted divisions between the White House and the Pentagon, where military leaders worry they will not have enough time and resources to solidify the headway they have made in pushing the Taliban out of strategic areas of southern Afghanistan.
Obama's top military advisers, including Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, were unusually candid in critiquing Obama's plan. They said they had initially been uncomfortable with an accelerated drawdown but ultimately backed it.
Under Obama's plan, most of the 23,000 troops leaving next year will likely come home during the 2012 summer fighting season, a time when the Taliban and other militants typically step up their attacks.
Yet Gates said Obama was right to be mindful of political concerns. Opposition is mounting in Congress to keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan as lawmakers face pressure to cut spending, and support for the war has plummeted since the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May.
"In terms of political sustainability at home, and keeping the risk as low as possible at the end of the summer, (Obama) struck about the right balance," Gates said.
Some 68,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan, focusing in large part on mentoring Afghan forces.
But security remains dire in much of Afghanistan's east and high-profile attacks continue to rattle even areas of the south and the capital Kabul. A coordinated attack on a landmark Kabul hotel by Taliban suicide bombers killed eight Afghans and one foreigner this week.
Gates said that after Obama's decision, commanders were now looking at options for thinning U.S. forces and seeking to mitigate increased risks.
"It may be that they can fill the gap with Afghan forces. They're just working their way through this now," he said.
Gates, who has steered the United States through two wars under two presidents, has also sought along with other U.S. officials to nudge Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan to crack down on militants who launch attacks from its tribal areas.
Gates said Washington continued to pay for historical mistakes with Pakistan, such as the decision to walk away from the region after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and imposing sanctions on Pakistan in response to its nuclear ambitions.
While Gates said the Obama administration had "bent over backward" to improve ties with Pakistan, the relationship remains tense. Islamabad has terminated a U.S. military training mission there.
"We all wish it were in a better place, but on the same token this relationship has ebbed and flowed for decades," Gates said.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and David Alexander; editing by Mohammad Zargham)
(For more coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here))