By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
KABUL, Afghanistan, June 4, 2011 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here today for his final visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary.
The secretary, who retires at the end of the month, will meet with Afghan and coalition leaders and U.S. troops.
“This is principally an opportunity for me to thank the troops and bid them farewell,” Gates said during a news conference aboard his plane before arriving.
The secretary noted that he has many commemorative challenge coins to give to troops he meets. “The plane will be considerably lighter when we leave,” he joked.
Gates discussed with reporters traveling with him the dialogue within the administration on the troop drawdown that will begin next month. He hit back at critics who say that fiscal matters should partially dictate the pace of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan.
“I think that once you’ve committed, that success of the mission should override everything else, because the most costly thing of all would be to fail,” he said. But that does not preclude adjustments to the mission or to the strategy, he added.
“Ultimately, the objective has to be success in the mission that has been set forth by the president,” the secretary said, adding that he will use what he learns from the visit as he participates in the Afghan drawdown decision.
“It’s always helpful to go into these discussions with the latest information from the field and some feeling of the ground truth in terms of how things are going,” he said.
President Barack Obama has made the commitment that U.S. forces will begin the drawdown process next month. Afghan forces will begin taking over security from the coalition, and the process will continue to the end of 2014.
“We will begin this process next month, but obviously as we move ahead we have to think about the next year or two in terms of where we are,” Gates said. “The president has been very specific that decisions will be based on conditions on the ground.”
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, will be an integral element in the deliberations and will make his recommendations to Washington soon. “We have to weigh the impact on our allies of what we decide – we certainly don’t want to precipitate a rush for the exits by our partners,” Gates said.
“By the same token,” he added, “you can’t be oblivious to the growing war weariness at home, and diminishing support in the Congress. So I think these are all things the president will have to weigh and those of us advising him will have to weigh as well.”