June 4 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, landing in Afghanistan today, said there is “war-weariness” at home as the Obama administration considers a troop drawdown starting next month.
“Success of the mission should override everything else, because the most costly thing of all would be to fail,” Gates told reporters traveling with him before his arrival in Kabul. “That does not preclude adjustments in the mission or the strategy, but ultimately the objective has to be success.”
President Barack Obama must consider the security situation in Afghanistan, congressional support and the fact other members of the NATO-led coalition are anxious to wind down their involvement, Gates said. U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said June 2 that the cost of the war is also central to the White House decision.
“We certainly don’t want to precipitate a rush for the exits by our partners,” Gates said. “By the same token, you can’t be oblivious to the growing war-weariness at home and diminishing support in the Congress.”
Gates’s visit to Afghanistan is his 12th and last as defense secretary. He is retiring this month. Obama has nominated Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to succeed Gates.
Members of Congress, such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, have said the killing of Osama bin Laden last month clears the way for a substantial troop reduction. About 100,000 U.S. soldiers are in Afghanistan today, according to the Pentagon.
Administration officials and leaders from Afghanistan have cautioned that the country isn’t yet secure and could again be a haven for terrorists, as it was before the U.S. ousted the Taliban from power after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
U.S. military gains against the Taliban over the past year have “degraded” its capabilities and opened the possibility for a political settlement, Gates said today at the International Institute for Security Studies Asia Security Summit, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore. He called on the group to sever its ties with al-Qaeda, recognize the constitution and lay down their arms.
“Perhaps this winter, the possibility of some kind of political talks or reconciliation might be substantive enough to offer some hope of progress,” Gates said. The Taliban “potentially have a political role in the future in that country.”
Gates plans to discuss pullout scenarios with U.S. Army General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, and meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Petraeus has been chosen by Obama to succeed Panetta at the CIA.
The Pentagon budget for the 2011 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, includes $113.5 billion for the Afghanistan mission. The fiscal year 2012 budget allocates $107.3 billion.
The troops who serve -- and those who’ve died -- in Afghanistan and Iraq are the one topic that can make Gates, a former director of the CIA, choke up in public. He plans to spend time with service members during the visit.
“This is principally an opportunity for me to thank the troops and bid them farewell,” he said, his voice thickening and then growing quiet at the end of the sentence. He paused. “So I don’t expect it to be a very easy trip.”
Gates has pursued better conditions for forces in the battle zones, including equipment upgrades. He speaks often of having come into office in 2006 to discover a Pentagon bureaucracy seemingly oblivious to the needs of the war fighter.
Gates backed a 2009 request for 40,000 additional troops from his Afghanistan commander at the time, Army General Stanley McChrystal, and Petraeus, who was the regional military chief at the time. Months later, Petraeus became the ground commander when McChrystal resigned, following an article that included disparaging remarks by his staff about the leadership in the White House.
Obama in December 2009 authorized the injection of 30,000 American troops and wrested almost 10,000 more from others in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led coalition. The condition was that the U.S. would begin a drawdown this July, nine months after the buildup was complete.
The administration has since supported Karzai’s target of 2014 to complete a handover of security responsibility to the Afghan government.
Gates has said that the 2014 timeline doesn’t necessarily require removing all American troops by then. Rather, as in Iraq, Afghans would take the lead and the U.S. would recede into a training and support role, probably for years longer.
In July, Afghanistan’s national army will take over security in three provinces and four cities, replacing foreign troops. Afghan forces will take over most of Kabul province and the main cities in the north and northwest, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat, Karzai said.
The July drawdown of coalition troops may be nominal, with more forces coming out later this year, as the announcement of a decision has been nudged to at least the end of this month and the movement of thousands of troops takes time.
--With assistance from Daniel Ten Kate in Singapore. Editors: Steven Komarow, Paul Tighe
To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Kabul, Afghanistan, at email@example.com.
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