BAGRAM, Afghanistan — 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."
A soldier asked Gates about a long-term military presence, and Gates noted that Washington and Kabul have recently begun negotiating a security partnership. He mentioned no details. He was to meet later in the day with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
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.
Gates planned to travel to eastern and southern portions of Afghanistan, the areas most fiercely contested by the Taliban insurgency.
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.