Gen. David Petraeus greets Secretary of Defense Robert Gates upon his arrival… (Jason Reed, Reuters )
KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a farewell visit to Afghanistan on Saturday as the NATO force announced the deaths of six service members in 24 hours.
Four Western troops were killed in an explosion Saturday in eastern Afghanistan, the coalition said. NATO's International Security Assistance Force also disclosed the deaths of two service members in the south a day earlier.
Before arriving in the country, Gates acknowledged that the American public was growing tired of the nearly decade-long war, and said that sentiment would play a part in decision-making about the course of the conflict. But he also described success in Afghanistan as crucial to U.S. interests.
A drawdown of U.S. troops is expected to begin next month, but its scope has not yet been finalized by President Obama.
"You can't be oblivious to the growing war-weariness at home and the diminishing support in the Congress," Gates told reporters traveling with him. "So I think these are all things that the president will have to weigh."
The Defense secretary's visit, part of a swing through Asia before stepping down from his post, was to include visits to troops in the field and a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, whose relationship with the United States and its Western allies has been tense in recent months.
Karzai has demanded a halt to NATO airstrikes in residential areas, together with an end to night raids led by Western troops. The coalition has described both tactics as necessary to the war effort.
Gates' visit coincided with a series of attacks in the volatile southern city of Kandahar, where a bombing at the city's university killed two students, according to local officials. Insurgents also ambushed a provincial justice minister, who was wounded but survived.
Attacks carried out by insurgents in recent weeks have been mainly aimed at Afghan government officials and installations. The Taliban movement declared the start of its spring offensive a little over a month ago.