With Defense Secretary Robert Gates set to retire on June 30, there are signs that his Afghanistan strategy could be headed out the door with him. The New York Times reports today that President Obama's national security team is considering an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan, even as Gates, in an emotional farewell tour of Afghanistan this weekend, warned that reducing U.S. combat strength too quickly could threaten coalition successes since the "surge" of 30,000 troops 18 months ago. Those calling for a steeper withdrawal than the 3,000 to 5,000 troops currently slated for July, The Times explains, point to the mounting cost of the war, the death of Osama bin Laden and crippling of al-Qaeda, and the need to pressure Afghan President Hamid Karzai to prepare his forces to enforce the country's security. Obama is expected to address the nation on Afghanistan later this month once his national security team hammers out its exit strategy.
Who's in favor of a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan? The Times mentions Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon, and notes that C.I.A Director Leon Panetta, who will succeed Gates, wants the U.S. to make more use of unmanned drones. To understand the opposing view, let's take a quick look at what Gates has said about the war in Afghanistan during his twelfth and final visit to the country.
In an address to troops at Forward Operating Base Dwyer in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, Gates said, "I would try to maximize my combat capability as long as this process goes on--I think that's a no-brainer." He added that while the withdrawal would involve a mix of combat and support troops, "I'd opt to keep the shooters and take the support out first."
At Forward Operating Base Walton in Kandahar City (a former Taliban stronghold), Gates warned against giving U.S. "allies the excuse to run for the exits" and urged decision-makers to focus on the next two years in Afghanistan rather than the initial July withdrawal. In this Reuters photo, Gates hands a soldier a "challenge coin" with his name on it.
During a visit with President Karzai on Saturday, Gates said that if the U.S. "can hold on to the territory that has been recaptured from the Taliban between ourselves and the Afghan forces and perhaps expand that security," political reconciliation talks with the Taliban could begin by the end of this year. Karzai, who raised concerns about civilian casualties during NATO airstrikes, awarded Gates the Wazir Akbar Khan medal, which is named after an Afghan leader who fought Soviet forces during the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.