FORWARD OPERATING BASE DWYER, Afghanistan – Defense Secretary Robert 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 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“If it were up to me I’d leave the shooters until last,” Gates said, referring to the mix of U.S. forces that will be withdrawn beginning next month.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 occurred 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 that killed two service members. It was the third fatal chopper incident in three weeks.
The Taliban movement claimed responsibility, saying it had downed a Western chopper in the Sabari district of Khowst province, near the Pakistan 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.
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 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.
President Barack Obama’s troop decision will be one of the last major Afghanistan debates involving Gates, who 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 NATO force.