KABUL — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, heartened by recent military operations to push back the Taliban from major population centers, said the U.S. was likely to begin pulling out some troops from Afghanistan this summer.
But he cautioned that any reductions in U.S. forces would likely be small and that a significant U.S. force will remain engaged in combat for the rest of 2011 throughout large swaths of the south and east where the Taliban are strongest.
“While no decisions on numbers have been made, in my view we will be well-positioned to being drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July even as we redeploy others to different areas of the country,” Gates told reporters. When President Obama announced an increase of more than 30,000 troops in late 2009, he pledged that some of those troops would start to come home this summer.
The planned reductions likely wouldn’t lead to a significant change in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in the near term. “Come September, October and beyond there will still be substantial numbers of coalition forces here, still partnering with Afghans and still maintaining unrelenting pressure on our enemy,” the defense secretary said.
Gates appeared with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, following a meeting in which the defense secretary apologized for a recent air strike that killed nine Afghan boys in Konar Province in eastern Afghanistan. The killings initially drew a heated condemnation from Karzai, who complained that the U.S. response to the deadly incident had been insufficient. On Monday, however, Karzai’s criticism had moderated.
The Afghan president praised the U.S. for the role it played in helping to rebuild Afghanistan after three decades of war, even as he said the U.S. must do more to prevent civilian deaths on the battlefield. “This has been an issue that has been for long at the heart of some of the tensions in an otherwise healthy relationship,” Karzai said. “Civilian casualties are an issue that the Afghans fail to understand.”
Gates, meanwhile, began his prepared remarks with a lengthy apology for the killings, which occurred outside Forward Operating Blessing, a base that U.S. forces turned over to the Afghans last week after more than five years of heavy fighting and little progress in damping violence or extending the reach of the Afghan government to the area.
“This breaks our heart,” Gates said of the accidental killing of the Afghan boys. “Not only is there loss a tragedy for their families, it is a setback for our relationship with the Afghan people whose security is our chief concern.”
The sparsely populated area around the FOB base in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley has been one of the more violent areas of the country in recent years. U.S. commanders have said that the local opposition to the presence of outsiders in the isolated valley fueled much of the violence in the area. American commanders said they still planned to conduct periodic intelligence-driven raids of the mountainous and isolated area.
Earlier in the day, Gates met with commanders who are responsible for Afghanistan’s eastern region, where the number of attacks is up by about 21 percent in recent months over the same period last year. Much of the increase is driven by a surge in largely ineffective mortar artillery attacks along the border with Pakistan, said Maj. Gen. John C. Campbell, the commander of U.S. troops in the area. Often insurgents will fire mortars along the border to create a diversion so that they can move across the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. U.S. military officials said.
“Based of the number of incidents where they are throwing artillery, I think they are frustrated,” Campbell said.
In a departure from past practice, U.S. and Afghan commanders released data that showed they had killed 2,448 insurgents over the past eight months — a 55 percent increase from the same period one-year earlier. Another 2,870 insurgents had been detained.
Senior U.S. military officials had previously discouraged releasing such body counts as they pushed their force to shift to a strategy that focused on protecting the population instead of killing the enemy. Of late, commanders have placed greater emphasis on killing mid-level Taliban insurgents in an effort to cripple their morale.
Gates also said on Monday that the U.S. would dispatch a team to Afghanistan next week to begin negotiating a long-term security pact with Afghanistan that would allow U.S. forces to continue in a training role beyond 2014 when Afghan troops are supposed to assume control of security for the country.