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He also offered praise and sympathy, noting that more than 850 troops from non-U.S. NATO members have died in Afghanistan. For many allied nations these were their first military casualties since World War II.

He seemed to rehearse his position in the coming debate within the Obama administration on how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan this year.

“Far too much has been accomplished, at far too great a cost, to let the momentum slip away just as the enemy is on his back foot,” he said.

He said the “vast majority” of the 30,000 extra troops Obama sent to Afghanistan last year will remain through the summer fighting season. He was not more specific.

In a question-and-answer session with his audience after the speech, Gates, 67, said his generation’s “emotional and historical attachment” to NATO is “aging out.”

He said he is not sure what this means in practical terms. But if Europeans want to keep a security link to the U.S. in the future, he said, “the drift of the past 20 years can’t continue.”