Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a round of farewells to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, began laying out parameters for the administration’s decision on how many military personnel to withdraw over the coming months.
As field commanders described swimming in the Arghandab River that was controlled by the Taliban just 12 months ago, Gates said persistence would allow the U.S.-led coalition to “turn the corner in this conflict” by the end of the year. He leaves office at the end of this month after 4 ½ years.
“No one wants to give up the gains that have been won at such a hard cost, and nobody wants to give our allies the excuse to run for the exits,” Gates told troops of the Army’s 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Forward Operating Base Walton yesterday in Kandahar City, once considered the Taliban’s heartland. “I have confidence that we’ll strike the right balance.”
In addition to conditions on the ground, Gates said long-term considerations should influence how to meet President Barack Obama’s timeline of beginning to withdraw forces next month. One issue is how long last year’s increase of 30,000 U.S. forces should last, he said.
“It’s really not so much about where you start, but what the next year and a half to two years looks like,” Gates said. “We have to look at it strategically like that and not just focus on the front end of this and whatever number gets announced in July.”
Weary of War
Obama is confronting the drawdown decision as U.S. voters and leaders in other coalition nations grow weary of the war and members of the Congress seize on the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as a sign the country can wind down its involvement in Afghanistan.
“I have every confidence the decision that will be made will be a responsible one,” Gates told about 150 members of the “Raider” Brigade in Kandahar, gathered under tan camouflage nets for relief from temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The brigade, due to rotate back to the U.S. within weeks, will be replaced by the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, from the same infantry division.
“What you’ve done here in Arghandab and in the Kandahar area is absolutely amazing,” Gates told the soldiers. “Over the last year, essentially you have ejected the Taliban from their home territory.”
A year ago, when Task Force Raider first arrived, Taliban fighters would snatch ordinary civilians and hang them as a warning to others, said Lieutenant Colonel Rodger Lemons.
‘Better Every Week’
“It continues to get better every week as we get into the summer,” Lemons said. “In the early spring, you’d see a couple thousand people out. Now you see 12,000 to 15,000 people on a Friday through this entire area because they don’t feel they’ll be intimidated by the Taliban.”
The number of insurgent attacks with roadside bombs or direct fire has dropped to four or five a week compared with as many as 50 a week a year ago, Lemons said.
Still, in April, insurgents assassinated Kandahar City’s police chief, General Khan Mohammed Mujahid, who cooperated closely with Task Force Raider and the 1st Brigade Combat Team, commander Colonel Jeffrey Martindale said. He’s lost 16 of his own soldiers in the past year.
Gates told reporters later at the U.S. Marine Corps’s Camp Dwyer in neighboring Helmand Province that, while he would prefer to reduce support personnel before combat troops, the plan probably will require a combination.
“I would try to maximize my combat capability as long as this process goes on -- I think that’s a no-brainer,” Gates said.
The cut also shouldn’t telegraph to Afghans that the U.S. and its partners will abandon their country as they did after the Soviet Union pulled out in 1989, Gates said.
Army General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is developing recommendations with his successor, Lieutenant General John Allen, for a discussion of the options in Washington.
Gates has said it’s too soon to see any effect from bin Laden’s death, though it might ultimately persuade Taliban leader Mullah Omar to split with al-Qaeda because the alliance between the groups was based in part on the leaders’ personal ties.
At Camp Dwyer, U.S. Marine Corps Major General John Toolan said that, while parts of Helmand Province have been tamed, the upper Helmand River Valley poses a challenge. He also said he’s focusing on how to develop the Afghan National Army, the facilities and equipment it will need to function in the long term and what skills its soldiers still need.
“The biggest fear for the Afghans is that we’ll leave and leave them cold without development projects,” Toolan said.