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U.S. May Withdraw Troops From Afghanistan Ahead of Schedule

March 10, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested the security handover in Afghanistan could happen before July 2011. Gates, on a trip to the region, traded barbs with Iran's president who also visited Kabul this week. Judy Woodruff reports.

JIM LEHRER: Defense Secretary Gates suggested today U.S. troops might start leaving Afghanistan ahead of the July 2011 schedule. Gates spoke as he was departing Kabul, as the president of Iran was arriving with criticism of U.S. policy.

Judy Woodruff has our report.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Gates raised the possibility of an early withdrawal as he toured an Afghan training ground near Kabul. He said he was impressed by what he saw of the Afghan troops.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. secretary of defense: As conditions on the ground permit between now and July 2011, we might be able to begin the process of transitioning to Afghan security control. I think it will be a process. But between now and July 2011, it would have to be conditions-based.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gates’ Afghan counterpart said he has no doubt his troops will be able to do the job once they’re fully trained.

GENERAL ABDUL RAHIM WARDAK, Afghanistan defense minister: It is our historic responsibility and patriotic duty to defend this country ourselves against all internal and external threats. And we have demonstrated that capability throughout the history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While Gates was in the countryside, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, arrived in Kabul. There was no explanation given, but Gates acknowledged the timing was odd.

ROBERT GATES: Well, it’s clearly fodder for all conspiratorialists, but no. And as I told — as I told President Karzai, we think Afghanistan should have good relations with all of its neighbors. But we also want all of Afghanistan’s neighbors to play an up-front game in dealing with the government of Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Earlier this week, Gates accused Iran of playing a double game, apparently seeking good relations with the Afghan government, while also backing Taliban fighters.

Today, Ahmadinejad met with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, and he turned Gates’ charge around.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, Iranian president (through translator): They are playing a double game. They themselves created terrorists, and now they’re saying that they are fighting terrorists. This is not possible. They cannot do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amid the war of words, there was more violence on the ground. A suicide truck bomber killed five Afghan troops at a base in Paktika Province. And the Taliban claimed responsibility for a bombing in Khost Province that killed two NATO troops yesterday.

Later, President Karzai flew to neighboring Pakistan, seeking help with reconciliation efforts aimed at the Taliban. At the same time, Pakistan has stepped up the pressure on Afghan Taliban leaders, capturing several senior figures in recent weeks.