60 Minutes and correspondent Katie Couric flew with him to Afghanistan just over a week ago. He went half way around the world to see the troops and to fire their commander, General David McKiernan.
Gates wants General Stanley McChrystal, a counter-insurgency expert, to implement the new U.S. strategy, which includes adding 21,000 more American combat troops to secure the cities and villages, and hold them until Afghan forces can grow and take over.
How long will it be before they even begin to take the lead in military operations? While we were in Kabul, Gates told us it will take at least two to four years.
"War is inherently unpredictable. Okay? And the enemy always has a vote. But that would be our anticipation," Secretary Gates told Katie Couric.
"Then U.S. troops will definitely be here at least through the end of President Obama's current term? Is that accurate?" Couric asked.
"We'll see," Gates replied. "This is a war."
"At the same time, don't you think that people in the United States deserve some kind of idea of how long this commitment will be?" Couric asked.
"I think what the people in the United States want to see is the momentum shifting to see that the strategies that we're following are working," Gates said. "And that's why I've said in nine months to a year, we need to evaluate how we're doing."
Asked what it would take for U.S. troops to be out in four years, Gates said, "You're asking me to make up a fairy story. I don't know what it would take. What it would take is the Afghan army growing and doing its job well. It would take the effectiveness of our own strategy and our own forces. It would take bringing better governance to the country. It would take a lot of different things to have a finite time when we can say, 'We're out of here.'"
"I don't believe in those stories. I've been around too long," he added.
When we landed in Kabul, Gates was met at the airport by General McKiernan, who he fired over dinner later that night. Gates said he wanted fresh eyes and fresh thinking to lead the war - a war that has been going badly.
Roadside bomb attacks rose 33 percent last year, with U.S. and coalition deaths up more than 20 percent. U.S. troops have complained that they're under-manned and under-equipped. Gates has made it his mission to change that.
We flew with him to three U.S. bases in southern Afghanistan. Our access was unprecedented. He usually avoids the spotlight, and he's so low-key that "Bob Gates" is hardly a household name. At Camp Leatherneck, he was even misintroduced to the troops as "Bill Gates."
But whether they know his name, they do know that he has gotten them stronger vehicles to survive roadside bombs, better body armor, and better battlefield intelligence. And he has cut by a third the time it takes to get a wounded soldier to a hospital.
"We sent out ten additional helicopters and three more field hospitals. We hope that we don't need it for any of you, but I want it to be there for you if it is needed," he told soldiers in Afghanistan.
At the Pentagon, before the trip, Gates told Couric the troops in harms way are his top priority.
"You've signaled you want to change the culture at the Pentagon. What about the culture here needs changing?" Couric asked.
"I want a part of this building that comes to work every single day, asking themselves, 'What can I do to help the soldier in the field today? What can I do to make them successful in the field and bring 'em home safely?'" Gates explained.
But Gates said that instead of helping today's soldiers battle insurgents, too much of the Pentagon has been focused on future conventional wars. "I wanted a department that frankly could walk and chew gum at the same time, that could wage war as we are doing now, at the same time we plan and prepare for tomorrow's wars," he said.
So, his new budget cuts some billion-dollar futuristic weapon systems, and instead provides more protection for troops on the battlefield.
The U.S. will have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan when the surge is completed this fall. NATO will have less than half as many, which makes no sense to Gates because terrorist plots spawned in the region are aimed at Europe as well as the U.S.
"I've been disappointed with NATO's response to this ever since I got this job," Gates told Couric. "NATO as an alliance, if you exclude the United States, has almost two million men under arms. Why they can't get more than 32,000 to Afghanistan has always been a puzzle to me."
"A puzzle, but it must be maddening as well," Couric remarked.
"Frustrating," Gates said.