U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that both the U.S. and Afghan governments agree the American military should remain involved in Afghanistan after the planned 2014 end of combat operations to help train and advise Afghan forces.
"Obviously it would be a small fraction of the presence that we have today, but I think we're willing to do that," Gates told a group of U.S. troops at Bagram air field, which is headquarters for U.S. and NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan. "My sense is, they (Afghan officials) are interested in having us do that."
Gates said the United States has no interest is setting up permanent military bases in Afghanistan and is in Afghanistan for talks with President Hamid Karzai and a look at battlefields where his commanders say the U.S. and NATO are gaining the edge against the Taliban.
Karzai is worried about what happens then, and wants more durable signs of U.S. support.
Gates also apologized for the accidental deaths of Afghan children in an airstrike last week, and Karzai accepted the apology.
On Sunday, the Afghan National Security Council discussed the matter of a long-term security accord with the U.S., according to a statement issued by Karzai's office. The statement said Karzai told the council that the U.S. wants the deal worked out as soon as possible. And he said that on the Afghan side it was matter not just for the government but for the Afghan people to decide.
The U.S. has said it wants a long-term relationship with Afghanistan, in part to ensure the country does not again become a haven for al Qaeda or affiliated terrorist groups. Karzai's interest is rooted in his desire for U.S. security guarantees and commitments that could help bring stability and prosperity.
Gates is at the start of a two-day visit with U.S. troops, allied commanders and Afghan leaders to gauge war progress as the Obama administration moves toward crucial decisions on reducing troop levels.
A planned visit to a combat outpost south of Kabul was scratched due to poor weather, and instead Gates made a brief flight north to Bagram, headquarters for the U.S.-led command that is responsible for eastern Afghanistan. The Pentagon chief visited a combat hospital, where Maj. Gen. John Campbell told reporters three soldiers had been admitted earlier in the day with wounds from a roadside bomb blast.
In his remarks to troops assembled inside a cavernous building on the air field, Gates offered encouragement.
"I know you've had a tough winter, and it's going to be a tougher spring and summer, but you've made a lot of headway," he said. "I think you've proven, with your Afghan partners, that this thing is going to work and that we'll be able to prevail."
Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters flying with the Pentagon chief from Washington that Gates wants to get a first-hand feel for changes on the ground since he last was in Afghanistan in December.
The U.S. is committed to beginning a troop withdrawal in July. But the size and scope of the pullback will depend on the degree of progress toward handing off full control to the shaky Afghan government.
Morrell said Gates expects to hear from troops and commanders that U.S. and NATO strategy is making important progress against the relentless Taliban, who are thought to be gearing up for a spring offensive.
U.S. commanders have been saying for weeks that the Taliban are suffering big losses in territory and personnel, while being denied the funding and infiltration routes they have relied on in the past to ramp up guerrilla operations each spring.
Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, top commander in the southwestern province of Helmand, told reporters last week that a Taliban counteroffensive is anticipated.
Mills said he expects the Taliban to try "to regain very, very valuable territory ... lost over the past six to eight months." He added that U.S. and allied forces are intercepting "as many of the foreign fighters as we can" who come from Pakistan to attack U.S. and Afghan troops.
Gates sees the spring as a potentially decisive period for President Barack Obama's war strategy, which includes beginning to withdraw U.S. forces in July.
This week's visit is Gates' 13th trip to Afghanistan, and probably one of his last as defense secretary. He has said he will retire this year but has not given a date.
After Afghanistan, Gates planned to fly to the Stuttgart, Germany, headquarters of U.S. Africa Command to attend a ceremony Wednesday marking the arrival of a new commander, Army Gen. Carter Ham.
Gates will attend a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.