U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates watches as Afghanistan's… (Reuters )
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — On a farewell visit to Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates predicted Saturday that the initial drawdown of American troops next month would be "modest" and played down the possibility of far-reaching changes in U.S. strategy this summer.
Gates, who is stepping down as Defense secretary at the end of the month, acknowledged that the American public was growing weary of the nearly decadelong war. But it would be "premature" to change course until it becomes clear whether the U.S. and its allies can hold territory taken from the Taliban during the last year, he said.
His comments, after separate meetings with the top U.S. commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, were a further indication that President Obama is not likely to order major troop cuts or strategy changes as part of a White House review of the Afghan war expected to be completed by the end of the month.
The White House has been coming under pressure from members of Congress from both parties to rethink the Afghan effort, a sentiment that has gathered momentum since the U.S. operation last month that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Lawmakers contend that the cost of the conflict, at more than $100 billion a year, is unsustainable. Last month, Obama said in an interview with Associated Press that the initial withdrawal would be "significant."
Gates provided no details about what he and Petraeus are recommending to the White House, but he made it clear that he opposes a quick drawdown. Gates arrived in Kabul, the Afghan capital, on the same day the North Atlantic Treaty Organization announced the deaths of six service members within 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. The nationalities of the dead were not immediately released.
He held out the possibility that peace talks with the Taliban, which U.S. officials say have begun at a low level, could produce results later this year.
"I believe that if we can hold on to the territory that has been recaptured from the Taliban, between ourselves and the Afghan forces, and perhaps expand that security, that we will be in position toward the end of this year to perhaps have a successful opening to reconciliation" between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership, Gates said, "or at least be in a position where we can say we've turned the corner here in Afghanistan."
There are growing indications that the United States believes it will have to reach a political settlement with Taliban insurgents in order to end the conflict.
In remarks Saturday at a security conference in Singapore before leaving for Kabul, Gates described the Taliban as "part of the political fabric" of Afghanistan and said it could "potentially have a political role in the future of the country."
His stop in Afghanistan, part of an around-the-world trip before he leaves office, will include visits with troops and talks with top commanders.
At his appearance with Gates, Karzai complained about civilian casualties caused by NATO forces. He repeated previous demands that NATO halt night raids and airstrikes in residential areas. The coalition has described both tactics as necessary to the war effort and said civilian casualties have come down.
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.