About 150 U.S. Army soldiers greeted outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates under an open air tent in southern Afghanistan. The first stop on his goodbye tour was to visit troops at Forward Operating Base Walton in Kandahar Province.
Gates told them he would never forget them. “More than anybody except the president, I am responsible for you being here. And that weighs on me everyday that I have had this job for four and a half years. You are, I believe, the best our country has to offer. And you will be in my thoughts and prayers for the rest of my life. Thank you," he said.
He next visited U.S. Marines in a sweltering hot tent at isolated Camp Dwyer in Helmand Province.
While Gates is traveling around the war-torn country, U.S. President Barack Obama considers how quickly and how many troops to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan next month. At Camp Dwyer, Gates said if the decision were up to him, it would be a “no brainer” that he withdraw combat troops last. “I would look for support people that we no longer need. You know, we have done a lot of construction, maybe those people are not needed. I would try to maximize my combat capability, as long as this process goes on," he said.
The defense secretary hinted late last week that he saw a possible end in sight to the nearly 10-year-old war, thanks to security gains in the past year and a half.
But while Gates said he thought there could be peace talks with the Taliban within the year, he cautioned they would only occur if NATO's ground advances continue to put pressure on the insurgents.
Field commanders at both bases said they have seen significant security gains, especially in terms of the increasing capacity of Afghan forces in areas of Kandahar Province.
But the violence rages on during what is the Taliban's traditional fighting season. Since Gates' arrival Saturday in Afghanistan, NATO has announced five service members have died in insurgent-related violence.
Gates is expected to visit more U.S. troops Monday and later in the week he heads to Brussels for a NATO security conference, which is expected to focus, in part, on the situation in Afghanistan.