FORWARD OPERATING BASE WALTON, Afghanistan — A U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan should leave combat power intact as long as possible to press an anti-Taliban offensive, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Sunday. He said support troops should go first.
On his final trip to assess a war in its 10th year, Gates told soldiers the endgame in Afghanistan is more likely to turn out well if the drawdown promised by President Barack Obama begins with an emphasis on removing noncombat forces rather than the infantry and others still trying to cement recent gains against a resilient Taliban.
"If it were up to me, I would leave the shooters for last," he said.
There are about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, making up about two-thirds of the NATO force.
The final decision is Obama's. The commander in chief soon will receive from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, a range of options on how to begin the withdrawal in July and how to pace it over perhaps 18 to 24 months, Gates said at this dusty logistics base in Kandahar province.
Gates met with Petraeus shortly after he arrived in Kabul on Saturday. Both men will soon end their tenures. Gates retires on June 30. Petraeus has been nominated to be the next CIA director, replacing Leon Panetta, whom Obama has chosen to succeed Gates at the Pentagon.
Gates said the main purpose of his visit was to deliver his personal thanks to troops.
NATO COPTER CRASHES: A coalition helicopter crashed in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday, killing two on board. The crash's cause is being investigated, NATO said, adding that there were no reports of insurgent activity in the area at the time.
PAKISTANI SITES HIT: A suicide bomber attacked a bakery in Pakistan's northwest on Sunday, killing 18 people, and another bomb in the volatile region left six others dead. There was no claim of responsibility, but the Pakistani Taliban has claimed credit for other recent attacks, saying it was avenging Osama bin Laden's death in a May 2 U.S. raid.