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Obama gave commanders leeway on July pullout (June 26)
Surge troops home by next summer, Obama says (June 22)
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Obama to move U.S. closer to Afghanistan exit (June 20)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan will gradually shift in the direction of counterterrorism, which is limited primarily to targeting militant leaders, as force levels are reduced, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in an interview.
But Gates said the strategy would still remain a combination of both counterinsurgency, a labor intensive mission that requires protecting the civilian population, and counterterrorism, even as the balance begins shifting.
"When you get into late 2012, 2013, it's clear that the balance, as we turn more and more responsibility over to the Afghans ... that our role will increasingly be kind of an overwatch role and a higher weighting on the counterterrorism," Gates said.
President Obama announced last week a plan to reduce U.S. troop levels by 10,000 this year and another 23,000 by the end of the summer of 2012.
Some in the administration, including Vice President Biden, had argued for a more abrupt shift toward counterterrorism when the administration first began debating its Afghanistan strategy.
Instead, Obama in 2009 had decided on a plan to surge 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan in an effort to seize the initiative from the Taliban. Since then, the Pentagon said it has made remarkable progress in driving insurgents from strongholds in the south.
Much of that progress was a result of thousands of U.S. troops pouring into southern Afghanistan, at times engaging in pitched battles with Taliban militants.
"Al-Qaeda is on their heels, and the Taliban's momentum in the south has been checked," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last week after Obama announced his plan.
The Pentagon has been planning on a diminished military presence for some time. Gates said the president had committed to leaving the surge forces in place between 18 and 24 months. All U.S. combat forces are expected to leave Afghanistan by 2014.
"The shift was inevitable regardless," Gates said. "The question is whether it's accelerated by coming out at the end of September instead of December. It's only four months. My suspicion is that in that time frame it probably does not require significant change."
Critics such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have said that drawing down forces in September will remove combat power in the middle of the fighting season and could jeopardize the progress already made. Taliban fighters generally retreat to sanctuaries to rest when snows and cold weather make movement difficult.
Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said in an interview last week that the military situation in Afghanistan is too precarious to warrant a drawdown.
Gates said the strategy and tactics will remain "fluid," as forces are reduced. Tactics will vary depending on the region and security conditions, he said.
Gates described it as "a gradual shift that will really depend on what part of the country you're in.
"There may be one part of the country where we are in an overwatch position and not much engaged in fighting, another part where we are heavily engaged in counterterrorism and another part where we're still in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency," said Gates, who is stepping down as Defense secretary Thursday.
Counterinsurgency tactics are aimed at protecting the population, a job that increasingly will fall to Afghan police and soldiers. When villages and towns are secured, militants grow isolated and have no support among the population. The number of Afghan security forces has grown to 290,000.
"The nature of the mission by 2013 will clearly be shifting as we transfer more and more responsibility to the Afghans," Gates said.