- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates says Americans should expect a significant U.S. military presence in Afghanistan for two years to four years more.

Just as in Iraq, the United States eventually will turn over provinces to local security forces, allowing the United States to bring the number of troops down steadily, according to Mr. Gates, who appeared on three Sunday talk shows with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to discuss President Obama’s new Afghan war plan.

That plan includes an increase of 30,000 U.S. troops, followed by a scheduled transition to a greater role for Afghan forces that would start in July 2011. Mr. Obama’s plan would increase to 100,000 the number of U.S. troops there, marking the largest expansion of the war since it began eight years ago.

Mr. Gates acknowledged that the additional U.S. forces will mean more casualties at first. He also said he’s happy with the results of an offensive in Helmand province.

“I think one of the reasons that our military leaders are pretty confident is that they have already begun to see changes where the Marines are present in southern Helmand,” Mr. Gates said.

The Pentagon chief said the initial U.S. troop withdrawal in July 2011 might involve only a small number of troops. He rejected suggestions that setting a transition date would embolden the Taliban. They read newspapers and are able to determine public opinion in the United States and Europe, he said.

Mr. Gates said he doesn’t believe the Taliban will get more aggressive, and he would welcome it if they lay low until the target date in 2011 because that would give coalition troops opportunities to make great progress in stabilizing Afghanistan.

Mrs. Clinton said one area that may not show much progress is winning over Taliban leaders.

They “have to renounce al Qaeda, renounce violence. They have to be willing to abide by the constitution of Afghanistan and live peacefully,” she said.

“We have no firm information whether any of those leaders would be at all interested in following that kind of a path,” she said. “In fact, I’m highly skeptical that any of them would.”

But both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Gates said having a target date will help move both countries toward a successful transition.

“What we’ve done and what the president’s direction to the commanders on the ground is very clearly: We want this to move. We want it to move quickly,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mr. Obama’s combination of a troop increase and a transition target is intended to balance “a demonstration of resolve with also communicating a sense of urgency to the Afghan government that they must step up to the plate in terms of recruiting their soldiers, training their soldiers and getting their soldiers into the field,” Mr. Gates said

“It’s an effort to try and let the Afghans know that while we intend to have a relationship and support them for a long time, the nature of that relationship is going to begin to change in July of 2011,” Mr. Gates said. “And as the security component comes down, the economic, development and the political relationship will become a bigger part of the relationship.”

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Gates appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” CBS’ “Face the Nation” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The interviews were taped Saturday, and the networks provided transcripts in advance of the shows’ broadcast.

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