x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Robert Gates says US should stay involved in Afghanistan

The US defence secretary is at the start of a two-day visit with US troops, allied commanders and Afghan leaders to gauge war progress as the Obama administration moves toward crucial decisions on reducing troop levels.

BAGRAM, Afghanistan // The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, said on Monday that both the US and Afghan governments agree the American military should remain involved in Afghanistan after the planned 2014 end of combat operations to help train and advise Afghan forces.

"Obviously it would be a small fraction of the presence that we have today, but I think we're willing to do that," Mr Gates told a group of US troops at Bagram air field, which is headquarters for US and Nato forces in eastern Afghanistan. "My sense is, they (Afghan officials) are interested in having us do that."

A soldier asked Mr Gates about a long-term military presence, and Mr Gates said Washington and Kabul have recently begun negotiating a security partnership. He mentioned no details. He was to meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai later in the day.

Mr Gates is at the start of a two-day visit with US troops, allied commanders and Afghan leaders to gauge war progress as the Obama administration moves toward crucial decisions on reducing troop levels.

Mr Gates planned to travel to eastern and southern portions of Afghanistan, the areas most fiercely contested by the Taliban insurgency.

Geoff Morrell, a defence department spokesman, told reporters flying with the Pentagon chief from Washington that Mr Gates wants to get a first-hand feel for changes on the ground since he last was in Afghanistan in December.

The US is committed to beginning a troop withdrawal in July. But the size and scope of the pullback will depend on the degree of progress toward handing off full control to the shaky Afghan government.

Mr Morrell said Mr Gates expects to hear from troops and commanders that US and Nato strategy is making important progress against the Taliban, who are thought to be gearing up for a spring offensive.

US commanders have been saying for weeks that the Taliban are suffering big losses in territory and personnel, while being denied the funding and infiltration routes they have relied on in the past to ramp up guerrilla operations each spring.

Major Gen Richard Mills, the top commander in Helmand, told reporters last week that a Taliban counteroffensive is anticipated.

Gen Mills said he expects the Taliban to try "to regain very, very valuable territory ... lost over the past six to eight months". He added that US and allied forces are intercepting "as many of the foreign fighters as we can" who come from Pakistan to attack US and Afghan troops.