By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
FORWARD OPERATING BASE WALTON, Afghanistan - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates Monday discussed the upcoming drawdown in Afghanistan with troops doing the heavy lifting in the country.
The secretary thanked soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade here for their service in and around Kandahar, noting that 16 of the brigade's soldiers have made the supreme sacrifice in the unit's year-long deployment and more than 200 have been wounded.
"But what you have done in the Kandahar area and the Arghandab (district of Kandahar province) is absolutely amazing," he said. "You have ejected the Taliban from their home territory.
"If we can hold this territory and expand the bubble, then I think by the end of the year we can turn the corner on this conflict."
Soldiers asked the secretary about the first phase of the U.S. drawdown that will be announced shortly. "We'll start that discussion when I get back from this trip," he said.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, International Security Assistance Force commander, will make his recommendations, the secretary explained, and conditions on the ground will determine how many troops will leave when the drawdown begins.
"For my money, if it were up to me, I'd leave the shooters for last," Gates said.
"What you've done is degrade the Taliban -that was one of our key objectives. At the same time, in the partnering activities you've done, we've seen an enormous increase in the numbers and the quality of the Afghan national security forces. The question becomes 'What can you take out, and what is the risk associated with that?'"
No one wants to give up the gains that have been won at such a hard cost, and no one wants to give the allies an excuse to run for the exits, the secretary said.
"I have confidence we'll strike the right balance," he said.
Gates spoke further about the process during a news conference with reporters at Camp Dwyer in Helmand province. He said it is not so much the start of the process that matters, "but what the next year and a half to two years look like."
The secretary said he thinks all involved with the discussion need to look at it strategically and not just focus on the front end and whatever number is announced in July.
"To make a decision on July in complete isolation from anything else has no strategic meaning," he said. "So part of that has to be 'What's the bookend? Where are we headed? What's the ramp look like?' And I think that will be part of the discussion.'"
In the interim, Gates said, the question is when the surge forces should come out, and over what period of time. He added that the mix of who comes out and which units are selected should be up to Petraeus and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John R. Allen - now deputy commander of U.S. Central Command and President Barack Obama's choice to succeed Petraeus as commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.