COMBAT OUTPOST ANDAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrapped up an emotional farewell visit to military posts in Afghanistan on Monday warning against pulling troops out too quickly.
Gates was asked repeatedly during his tour how the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden would affect U.S. strategy and what the impact would be on President Barack Obama’s plan to begin pulling out troops from Afghanistan in July.
“My view is that we’ve got to keep the pressure on. We’re not quite there yet,” he said.
“I think we’ve made headway on our major goals, which have been to disrupt al Qaeda and try and defeat them. Clearly the killing of bin Laden was a big deal in that,” Gates told a soldier at Combat Outpost Andar in Ghazni Province.
“We’ve still got a ways to go and I just think we shouldn’t let up on the gas too much at least for the next few months.”
U.S. General David Petraeus, commander of the 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, is due to make recommendations to Obama on how many soldiers can be pulled out.
Obama promised to begin pulling troops out in July 2011 when he announced a plan in December 2009 to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to arrest a growing Taliban-led insurgency.
Earlier this year it appeared likely that only a few thousand troops might initially be withdrawn.
But budget pressures and the killing of bin Laden have led to calls for a larger withdrawal or a shift to a counterterrorism strategy that would focus on fighting al Qaeda and its allies and could be done with fewer troops.
Gates told a soldier he did not see how counterterrorism would work without a significant counterinsurgency effort to provide security and economic opportunities for the population.
Counterterrorism activity is “taking a lot of Taliban leaders off the battlefield,” he said. But “key to gathering the intelligence to be able to do the counterterrorism mission is the population feeling secure enough that they’re willing to share information with you,” he added.
Gates said as Afghan forces assumed more of the security operations, U.S. troops could begin to focus their efforts on counterterrorism.
“I see the two as integrally linked and I think over time our mission will be less and less COIN (counterinsurgency) and more and more counterterrorism, so there will be a transition to that. I don’t think we’re ready to do that yet,” he said.
Gates, who steps down as Pentagon chief at the end of June, visited five military outposts across the east, south and southwest of Afghanistan over the past two days, fielding questions from troops and bidding them an emotional farewell.
“Probably more than anybody but the president himself, I am responsible for your being here,” he told one group.
“You all are in my thoughts every minute of every day.”
At each stop he has shaken hands with soldiers, had a picture taken with them and presented them with a so-called challenge coin, a specially minted medallion with the secretary of defense’s seal. A spokesman said Gates had handed out some 1,800 coins over the past two days.
Editing by Myra MacDonald