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Gates: Save shooters for last in Afghan pullout

Not surprising, but there it is: Secretary Gates told soldiers in Afghanistan on Sunday that if he had his way, he'd begin by withdrawing support elements as part of this summer's planned drawdown, and then, later down the line, bring home the first combat units. He and other Pentagon officials have hinted as much before, but now Gates is on the record with one of his most important audiences: the troops themselves.

Jim Garamone of AFPS picks up the story from there:

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,” he continued, “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.

Army 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?'”

What indeed. Gates has said before that he is confident combat troops will come home sometime as a part of this withdrawal, so it isn't a question of them not going at all. In fact, he has said he thought the announcement of the beginning of this summer's drawdown actually might have been a propaganda coup for the U.S., because it might have made the Taliban believe all the Americans were going home. So if the bad guys are waiting until the fall to try anything big, they'll be in for a rude, painful surprise, SecDef has argued.

But none of this helps the thousands of soldiers and Marines who might have hoped they'd get to come home early with the beginning of the pullout this year.

Another note: Gates flew in an MV-22 Osprey during part of his trip to Afghanistan, according to DoD's official photographs. Wonder if we'll be seeing a flood of promotional images from this as a part of the services' and manufacturers' never-ending campaign to convince people the birds are safe?

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