Defense Secretary Robert Gates said from Afghanistan on Monday that the U.S. military is well positioned to start withdrawing some troops in July, though he said a U.S. presence may remain in the country past the 2014 deadline to transfer security control to local forces.
Gates arrived in Afghanistan on Monday on an unannounced trip to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and visit the country's restive eastern and southern provinces to assess conditions as he decides how many troops to withdraw in July. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters en route to Afghanistan that "there are more talks to take place and more work to be done once [Gates] is home," before any official decisions are made about the size and scope of troop withdrawals.
Gates told troops in Afghanistan that the U.S. may remain in the country past a 2014 deadline for the end of combat operations to train Afghan soldiers. "Here in Afghanistan, we're in the process right now of beginning a negotiation with the Afghan government for a long-term security partnership.... We are fully prepared to have a continuing presence here assisting the Afghans after 2014.... Obviously it would be a small fraction of the presence that we have today," Gates said, according to Agence-France Presse.
The issue of civilian casualties was also part of Gates's visit: Karzai on Sunday rejected the personal apology of Gen. David Petraeus, top commander of U.S. and NATO forces there, for the mistaken killings of nine children in Afghanistan last week when two helicopters fired on what they thought were insurgents. Petraeus apologized for the incident at an Afghan National Security Council meeting on Sunday in addition to his public apology last week.
"The people of Afghanistan are tired of these incidents and excuses, and condemnations cannot relieve their pain," Karzai said on Sunday.
Gates addressed the issue at a news conference alongside Karzai, saying that the incident "breaks our heart," and called it a "setback" for U.S. relations with the Afghan people. Karzai accepted the apology.
From Afghanistan, Gates will fly to Germany to visit the U.S. Africa Command and then continue to Brussels to attend a meeting of NATO defense ministers.