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Gates in Afghanistan to weigh pullout plan

Gates in Afghanistan to weigh pullout plan
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates gets off a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in Kabul, Afghanistan, on September 16, 2008. Secretary Gates is in southwest asia to meet with Iraqi and Afgan leaders and to preside over the changing of the Commanding General of Multi-National Force Iraq ceremony. (UPI Photo/ Jerry Morrison/DOD) | License Photo

KABUL, Afghanistan, March 7 (UPI) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told soldiers in Afghanistan Monday shorter deployments aren't likely soon but should be spaced further apart.

Speaking to troops at Bagram Airfield, Gates said he was in the country to thank them and their families for their sacrifices. But when asked if they could expect a move to nine-month deployments instead of a year, Gates said he doesn't think that will happen any time soon and his first priority is to make sure they get two years at their home stations between one-year stints in a war zone.

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The 2-to-1 deployment ratio will be in place for 70 percent of Army units this year, and should be in effect for all units by the end of next year, the secretary said.

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Gates lauded progress in stabilizing the country.

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"It was a tough winter, and it's going to be a tougher spring and summer, but you've made a lot of headway," Gates told the troops.

Gates told the service members the United States and Afghan government are working to have Afghan security primarily achieved by Afghan forces by the end of 2014. The United States may keep a much smaller force in Afghanistan after that point if the Afghan government so desires, he said.

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"We are fully prepared to have a continuing presence here, assisting the Afghans after 2014," Gates said. "I think there is a desire on both sides to have some arrangement."

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The U.S. troop drawdown is scheduled to start in July but the withdrawal's pace would depend on conditions in the war.

Gates's arrival came a day after Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected a personal apology by Gen. David Petraeus, top commander in Afghanistan, for the deaths last week of nine Afghan boys in an airstrike. NATO officials said the operation was intended to hit insurgents who attacked a U.S. base in Kunar province. The deaths of the boys, all less than 14 years of age, led to a groundswell of outrage and protests.

Petraeus and U.S. President Obama apologized publicly but Karzai indicated it wasn't enough.

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Military commanders said they expect fighting will intensify in the spring, the Los Angeles Times said. NATO forces touted successes in the last months of 2010 but said they recognize the traditional warm-weather "fighting season" will indicate how long-lasting the gains would be.

Gates also will travel to Stuttgart, Germany, headquarters of the U.S. Africa Command, to preside over a ceremony recognizing Gen. Carter Ham's assumption of leadership of the Africa Command, The New York Times said. Gates also will travel to Brussels to attend a NATO defense ministers meeting at which the situation in Libya and U.S. troop withdrawals in Afghanistan will be discussed.

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