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BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — After a winter of steadily increasing offensives, the U.S. is now “well positioned” to begin a July drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Kabul on Monday evening.

How many people actually will come home — and how fast — is something Gates hopes to gauge during this week’s visit to Afghanistan, his 13th as defense secretary.

Late Monday, Gates met privately with President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace and at a subsequent press conference said, “While no decisions on numbers have been made, in my view, we will be well positioned to begin drawing down some U.S. and coalition forces this July, even as we redeploy others to different areas of the country.”

Gates cited significant gains in recent months but stressed that a substantial number of troops would remain in Afghanistan for years to come. In fact, he said, the U.S. next week will send a team of negotiators to discuss a long-term security presence beyond 2014, the date the White House has set for ending the Afghanistan War.

“We have no interest in permanent bases,” Gates said. “But if the Afghans want us here, we are certainly prepared to contemplate that.”

Karzai, though, has been publicly fuming after a U.S. airstrike last week killed nine Afghan boys U.S. forces mistook for insurgents. On Sunday, Karzai rejected a formal apology from Petraeus, saying American condolences were no longer enough and civilian deaths had to stop. On Monday, he accepted an apology from Gates.

“This breaks our heart,” Gates said. “Not only is their loss a tragedy for their families, it is a setback for our relationship with the Afghan people whose security is our chief concern.”

Karzai said he finds it “increasingly difficult” to explain away each incident as an inevitable byproduct of war.

“Civilian casualties are an issue that Afghans fail to understand,” Karzai explained.

Within hours of landing in Afghanistan, Gates pinned Purple Hearts on three soldiers who came in overnight to Bagram’s Craig Theater Hospital after their vehicle was hit by an IED. He then lunched with junior enlisted special operations troops and told 100 soldiers precisely what they didn’t want to hear: It’s only going to get tougher.

“You’re having success, there’s no question about it,” Gates told soldiers from Joint Special Operations Command and others gathered in a frigid warehouse. “You’ve had a tough winter. It’s going to be tougher this spring and summer. But you’ve made some headway.”

Fighting and insurgent attacks typically slow in Afghanistan’s winter months, but the east did not quiet down as much as in years past, partly because the U.S. troop surge kept up the offensive. “I think the enemy is really trying to get an early start on their spring campaign,” said Maj. Gen. John Campbell, who heads Regional Command-East.

Because of stepped operations, coalition forces have found 270 percent more arms caches in the past 90 days than the same period last year, and killed, captured or wounded 5,500 people since June.

Gates is scheduled to meet this week with Afghan War commander Gen. David Petraeus. On Monday, he was briefed by Petraeus’ deputy, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, and Cambell. On Wednesday, Gates will participate in Africa Command’s change-of-command ceremony in Stuttgart, Germany, and then travel to Brussels, Belgium, for a NATO defense ministers conference.

baronk@stripes.osd.mil

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