U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, left, arrives at Forward Operating… (Jason Reed, Pool Photo /…)
Reporting from Forward Operating Base Dwyer and — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates argued Sunday for keeping combat units in place and removing as many support troops as possible when the U.S. begins its promised drawdown of forces in Afghanistan next month.
"If it were up to me I'd leave the shooters until last," Gates said, referring to the mix of U.S. forces that will be withdrawn beginning next month.
The Defense secretary, on a farewell visit to troops before his retirement, later clarified to reporters that, while the drawdown will include both combat and support units, it made sense to keep as much "combat power" in place as possible to preserve and extend fragile security gains U.S. officials say have been achieved in Afghanistan in recent months.
As Gates was visiting bases in volatile Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the Western military reported the crash of a NATO helicopter in eastern Afghanistan, which killed two service members. It was the third fatal chopper incident in the last three weeks.
The Taliban movement claimed responsibility, saying it had downed a Western chopper in the Sabari district of Khowst province, near the Pakistani border. However, the insurgents routinely claim to have shot down any alliance aircraft that crashes.
Military officials said the cause of the crash was under investigation. NATO's International Security Assistance Force did not release the nationalities or identities of the two killed, in keeping with usual practice. Most of the troops serving in Afghanistan's east are Americans.
Earlier in the day, the Western military announced the death of a third service member, in the country's south.
Violence has been ratcheting upward in recent weeks across Afghanistan. May was this year's most lethal month for Western troops, with 57 NATO service members killed, according to the website icasualties.org.
One of Gates' goals for his three-day visit appeared to be to lay out his thinking about the drawdown ahead of the White House deliberations, which begin once he returns to Washington, and even to preempt other officials who favor steeper troop cuts.
President Obama's troop decision will be one of the last major Afghanistan debates involving Gates, who has announced he is stepping down at the end of the month. Analysts expect an initial withdrawal of between 2,000 and 3,000 troops. There are currently nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, making up about two-thirds of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force.
Gates has not said how large a drawdown he favors. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, has not submitted his recommendations yet but is expected to do so shortly.
A day after telling reporters that the initial withdrawals should be "modest," Gates emphasized that other countries with troops in Afghanistan might be tempted to make their own steep cuts if the U.S. pulls out too many troops this year.
"Nobody wants to give up the gains that have been won at hard cost and nobody wants to give our allies an excuse to run to the exits," Gates told a group of U.S. troops during a stop at a base near Kandahar.
Cloud reported from Forward Operating Base Dwyer and King from Kabul.