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WASHINGTON — Nearing the end of four years on the job, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that he understands why there is resurging anti-war sentiment in Washington, especially during economic hard times, and indicated it would require presidential leadership to see the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through to their ends.

“One of the interesting challenges about this job has been the responsibility of waging two wars, neither of which I had anything to do with starting,” Gates said at his final news conference as defense secretary.

With two weeks left in his term, Gates finds himself once again trying to sell the wars to Congress and the public, amid growing budgetary pressures to justify the war expenses and greater numbers of Democrats and Republicans urging a faster downsizing in Afghanistan.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and influential member of the House Armed Services Committee, became the latest oppositional voice Thursday, calling for the war to shift from its emphasis on counterinsurgency to a smaller counterterrorism focus.

“I understand the impatience.I understand the concern, especially in hard economic times,” Gates said. “But we also have to think about the long-term interests — security interests for our country.”

Gates compared the endgame in Afghanistan to the Iraq War.

He said when he came into office in 2007, he saw how unpopular Iraq was, as well as the prospect of surging more troops into it. Now, that effort is widely considered a success that stabilized the country enough to allow troops to begin coming home.

“For me … with the exception of the first couple of years of World War II, there has never been a popular war in the United States, in our whole history,” Gates said.

“They’ve all been controversial,” he said. “And in each case, it has required the leadership of the president.

“So, this unhappiness, and certainly the war weariness after a decade, rests heavily on all of us.”

Gates acknowledged the cost of the wars “is huge, but declining.” It will drop from $160 billion to $120 billion annually by the end of fiscal 2012, he said, with further declines through 2014.

baronk@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @StripesBaron

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