KABUL, Afghanistan – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday that the U.S. and its allies are 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 that his talks with American commanders and Afghan officials had strengthened his confidence that the U.S. would be able to carry out President Barack 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. But he wasn’t more specific.
Marines in Helmand have said there is greater security and better governance in and around Marjah, 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. At the same time, the Taliban 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 deemed 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 in the last year since Obama ordered 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
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.
About 100,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, and Gates emphasized that the Afghan army and police will not assume the lead role in providing security throughout the country until 2014.