Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday that the U.S. and its allies were on track to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in July as promised, even as he sought to tamp down tensions with President Hamid Karzai over continuing civilian casualties.
Though violence has been spiraling upward in several regions of Afghanistan recently, Gates said his talks with American commanders and Afghan officials had strengthened his confidence that the U.S. would be able to carry out President Obama's pledge to begin troop pullouts later this year.
"While no decisions on numbers have been made, in my view we will be well-positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July," he said at a news conference.
Gates said security was improving in the south and east and that U.S. and Afghan forces were making gains in ousting the Taliban from strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. He did not provide specifics.
Marines in Helmand have said there is greater security and better governance in and around Marja, where they staged an offensive 13 months ago, although some residents have expressed fears the Taliban will seek to regain a foothold in the spring. Coalition forces have also seized control of three strategic outlying districts in Kandahar province, the spiritual homeland of the Taliban. But the Taliban also made deep inroads in 2010 — the deadliest year of the war for Western forces — in areas in the north, northwest and center that previously had been considered safe.
Gates arrived Monday morning and spent the day meeting with troops and U.S. commanders before heading to the presidential palace for one-on-one talks with Karzai. He acknowledged that difficult fighting lies ahead, even as he praised the troops for gains made in the last year since Obama ordered 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
"You've had a tough winter, and it's going to be an even tougher spring and summer," Gates told U.S. troops at Bagram air base, north of Kabul. "But you've made a lot of headway."
The scale of the pullback, which was pledged 15 months ago by Obama, has not been decided. Commanders and senior officials have said it will depend on conditions on the ground, and most analysts expect only token withdrawals this year. Obama is under political pressure from within his own party to begin withdrawals, but Pentagon officials and military officers say they fear drawing down forces steeply before 2014 will endanger the fragile security gains that have been made.
About 100,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, and Gates emphasized that the Afghan army and police would not assume the lead role in providing security throughout the country until 2014.
As violence has spiraled in several regions of Afghanistan, civilians have most often been the victims. On Monday, in a pattern of attack that has become chillingly familiar, a bomb went off in a mosque, injuring five people. Moments later, as rescuers arrived, a second explosion took place, this time killing two police officers and injuring 19 other people, provincial officials said.
After meeting Karzai at the presidential palace, Gates offered a personal apology for the deaths last week of nine Afghan boys in an American airstrike.
"This breaks our heart," Gates said at a palace news conference with Karzai next to him. "Not only is their loss a tragedy for their families, it is a setback for our relationship with the Afghan people whose security is our chief concern."
Karzai responded that he trusted Gates "when he says he's sorry," but that the Afghan people "want it stopped. They don't want it reduced. They want it stopped."
The exchange came a day after Karzai rejected as insufficient a personal apology by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior commander in Afghanistan.
The NATO force said the helicopter and artillery strike had been intended to hit insurgents who had earlier attacked an American base in mountainous Kunar province. The slain children were gathering firewood on a mountainside when they were hit. One 10-year-old boy survived.
With winter on the wane, military commanders in Afghanistan say they expect battlefield confrontations to intensify in the coming months. The NATO force, while touting military gains in the latter part of 2010, acknowledges that only the start of the traditional warm-weather "fighting season" will show how durable those gains will be.
Gates said a U.S. negotiating team would arrive in Kabul next week to open talks with Karzai's government on a long-term military relationship. The details of the agreement are still to be decided, but Gates did not rule out a deal authorizing long-term U.S. bases.
He plans to travel to southern Afghanistan on Tuesday to visit with field officers and troops. Poor weather forced him to cancel a planned visit to the east Monday.
Later this week, Gates will attend a ceremony in Stuttgart, Germany, as Army Gen. Carter F. Ham takes the helm of U.S. Africa Command, which oversees U.S. operations in Africa. He will also attend a defense ministers meeting at North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels, where the situations in Afghanistan and Libya are likely to be discussed.