Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates meets with troops at Forward Operating… (Jason Reed, Getty Images )
Reporting from Forward Operating Base Shank, — Over and over again, soldiers and Marines on the punishing front lines across Afghanistan had the same question for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates: Does Osama bin Laden's death mean the U.S. can finally wind down a nearly decade-long war?
Not yet, Gates replied.
The persistent question also is being asked increasingly in Washington, as debate intensifies over when and how to start bringing home the 100,000 U.S. troops deployed in a conflict that is increasingly unpopular in America.
Enlisted men and women in grueling war zones typically ask visiting brass about equipment and benefits, not strategy or policy. But Gates fielded inquiries about the future of America's painful involvement in Afghanistan at four of his five stops in the south and east at far-flung Army fire bases and a dusty Marine camp on Sunday and Monday. The questions were polite, respectful and insistent.
"Sir, since the death of Osama bin Laden, has the military strategy changed at all?" a young female soldier in the 101st Airborne Division's 4th Brigade asked Gates after he thanked several hundred soldiers at their headquarters in rugged southeast Paktika province, near the border with Pakistan.
Older veterans, especially those serving their second or third combat tours, also wonder how long they must stay now, after U.S. Navy SEALs killed the founder of Al Qaeda on May 2, said Sgt. Theodore Martell, an Army medic, at this remote helicopter base in rural Lowgar province.
On a three-day visit to Afghanistan, Gates appeared to lay out his thinking on the military drawdown ahead of White House deliberations, in an effort to preempt those who favor steep troop cuts. The discussions are expected to start next week after he returns to Washington. For Gates, making his 12th and final visit as Defense secretary to thank troops before he retires this month, the answer was simple.
"We've made a lot of headway but we have a ways to go," he told soldiers with the 1st Infantry Division stationed at Combat Outpost Andar, a heavily fortified base in eastern Afghanistan's battle-scarred Ghazni province.
Over time, Gates said, the U.S. mission would become "less and less" counterinsurgency against Taliban fighters and "more and more counter-terrorism" against Al Qaeda and its allies. "But I don't think we are ready to do that."
Yet the growing questions about the necessity of continued combat in Afghanistan have made the size and pace of the drawdown much less certain, said senior officials in Washington and Afghanistan.
Until recently, Gates and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, appeared to hold the upper hand in arguing to maintain a maximum number of troops in the field for as long as possible. But Gates and Petraeus are retiring; Petraeus has been nominated to run the CIA.
Now White House aides and others who long have been skeptical of a troop-heavy strategy see opportunity to force a reassessment. They contend that steep withdrawals are possible because military pressure in Afghanistan and CIA drone strikes in neighboring Pakistan are reducing the threat from Bin Laden's terrorist network — one of President Obama's main objectives.
"It has strengthened those who say we can accomplish what we need to and still bring out the surge forces more quickly," said a U.S. official. The official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about internal deliberations, was referring to the 30,000 additional troops that Obama ordered to Afghanistan in late 2009.
Obama has pledged to begin a "significant" drawdown of U.S. forces starting next month, but the size of the withdrawals and the pace of those to follow over the next two years will be the subject of closed-door deliberations in coming weeks.
Obama has not indicated whether he thinks killing Bin Laden gives him more latitude to make deep troop cuts. Nor has he said whether he will be swayed by the growing costs of the war, now totaling close to $12 billion a month.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said Monday that the decision would not boil down to dollars and cents. "Obviously every decision is made with a mind toward cost," he said. "But this is a decision about U.S. national security interests."
Advisors to Obama said Monday that the troop drawdown would not be a token one.
"We're not debating the policy questions anymore," said a senior administration official, who requested anonymity while discussing internal deliberations. "The only relevant inquiry now is, 'What are the conditions on the ground?'"
Obama's national security team discussed the war and prospects for a strategic partnership with the Afghan government in a two-hour meeting in the White House situation room Monday. Gates took part via a secure video line.
The group did not discuss a troop withdrawal number, said people familiar with the discussion.
In Afghanistan, each time Gates was asked by troops about the fallout of Bin Laden's death, he reiterated that it was important to keep the military pressure on the Taliban.
Asked about the repeated questions to Gates, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, second ranking U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said that rank-and-file troops "see the news and everything else." But, he insisted, "they believe the strategy is sound."
Gates received at least two other memorable questions as he prepares to leave the Pentagon job he has held for five years under two presidents.
One soldier asked whether he and his buddies could persuade him "to extend your deployment."
"No," Gates answered.
And in the dusty helicopter base in Lowgar province, a sergeant asked for career advice. "One of my soldiers has aspirations to be secretary of Defense," he said. "What advice would you give him?"
Gates replied, "Don't."
Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.