Reporting from Washington —
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates suggested Sunday that only a small portion of the U.S. force in Afghanistan will begin to return home next year when an Obama administration deadline for the start of a troop pullout goes into effect.
In ordering a troop increase last year, President Obama set July 2011 as the time when the Pentagon would begin to reduce forces, ostensibly with Afghanistan more secure from the threat of the Taliban.
The U.S. will have more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of this summer. Gates said Sunday that the rate of the withdrawal will depend on the security conditions in the country. He said he expected the pace to increase as conditions improve.
"I think we need to reemphasize the message that we are not leaving Afghanistan in July of 2011. We are beginning a transition process," Gates said on the ABC News program "This Week."
"Drawdowns early on will be of fairly limited numbers," he said. "It will depend on the conditions on the ground."
Gates' view was seemingly at odds with that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who watched last week as more than 100 House Democrats voted against a war-funding measure.
Asked on "This Week" whether the drawdown of forces would be limited to a few thousand troops, Pelosi said: "Well, I hope it is more than that. I know it's not going to be, 'Turn out the lights and let's all go home on one day.' But I do think the American people expect it to be somewhere between that and a — a few thousand troops."
In a sign of doubts within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization about the war's aims, the Dutch mission in Afghanistan formally ended Sunday, though it will take some days for troops to complete their departure. About 1,600 troops from the Netherlands were deployed in Oruzgan province, with a presence of several hundred more elsewhere in the country.
A NATO spokesman, Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, said the Dutch departure should not be seen as a weakening of the alliance's forces in Afghanistan. The departures are being offset by new arrivals, he said, mainly of American troops.
Speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he could envision a scenario in which more troops were needed in Afghanistan.
"If we get the enemy on the run and they are having safe havens, let's say down in Kandahar — that's really where the center of gravity is — there is a lot of open terrain down there," said Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "And if we begin to clear the city and our intelligence says they are going out in the hinterlands and they are regrouping, we may need more troops to keep them on the run."
Gates also maintained Sunday on "Meet the Press" that last week's leak of a trove of sensitive documents had substantially harmed the war effort.
The Defense secretary said he does not believe that Taliban forces in Afghanistan possess shoulder-fired Stinger missiles that can be used to down U.S. aircraft, and defended the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, disputing claims that intelligence elements in the country are actively aiding the Taliban.
"I see a change in the strategic calculus in Pakistan," Gates said.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the U.S. was working to shield from Taliban retribution Afghans identified in the WikiLeaks documents.
In Afghanistan on Sunday, a roadside bomb outside Kandahar killed six civilians, the provincial government said.
In Kabul, the Afghan capital, there was a second day of anti-American and anti-NATO protests. The protests were initially triggered by the deaths Friday of four Afghan civilians in a traffic accident involving a vehicle driven by U.S. contractors. The demonstrators also said reports that scores of civilians died in a NATO airstrike in Helmand province last month had not been adequately investigated.
President Hamid Karzai said up to 52 civilians were killed; NATO says the death toll was eight at most, and that all or nearly all were insurgents.
Times staff writer Laura King in Kabul contributed to this report.