JUDY WOODRUFF: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, heading for retirement at the end of the month, holds a farewell Pentagon news conference.
Kwame Holman reports.
KWAME HOLMAN: November 2006, Republicans lose control of Congress in the midterm elections, largely because of a single issue, the grinding, deadly Iraq war. The lightning rod leader of that effort, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is forced to resign -- his replacement, Robert Gates, called back to government service from the presidency of Texas A&M University.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: Because our long-term strategic interests and our national and homeland security are at risk, because so many of America's sons and daughters in our armed forces are in harm's way, I didn't hesitate when the president asked me to return to duty.
KWAME HOLMAN: Taking over at the Pentagon, the former CIA director and aide to six previous presidents immediately burnished his reputation for blunt candor, as at his confirmation hearing in December 2006:
SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich. Armed Services Committee chairman: Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?
ROBERT GATES: No, sir.
KWAME HOLMAN: That kind of straight talk also appealed to President Obama, who asked Gates to stay on after his election in 2008.
In the end, the man who implemented the Iraq troop surge policy for President Bush would oversee for President Obama the winding-down of that war. In 2009 and 2010, Gates also presided over two large troop deployments into Afghanistan, tripling the size of the U.S. force there.
Away from the battlefield, Gates was quick to dismiss top officers and officials who, in his view, failed in command.
ROBERT GATES: This is unacceptable, and it will not continue.
KWAME HOLMAN: In 2007, the secretary of the Army and others were dismissed over subpar care for injured troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. That same year, Gates fired the Air Force secretary and chief of staff for lackluster nuclear weapons security.
And, in 2009, he relieved U.S. Army General David McKiernan of command of the Afghan coalition.
ROBERT GATES: We have a new strategy, a new mission, and a new ambassador. I believe that new military leadership also is needed.
KWAME HOLMAN: Gates also challenged the defense establishment, in Congress and his own building, canceling, for example, the costly F-22 fighter program.
But he sought much greater and faster spending to protect troops in the field. He saluted them on his last trip to Afghanistan 10 days ago.
ROBERT GATES: Just want you to know I think about you every day. I feel your hardship and your sacrifice.
KWAME HOLMAN: On that same overseas swing, the secretary took a tough tone with NATO allies, charging they have let American power carry the burden.
ROBERT GATES: What I have sketched out is the real possibility for a dim, if not dismal, future for the transatlantic alliance.
KWAME HOLMAN: During his four-and-a-half years on the job, Gates has won accolades from across the political spectrum for managing two wars and for taking on the Pentagon bureaucracy.
But even with that widespread praise, some longtime defense analysts see shortcomings in the secretary's tenure.
Lawrence Korb is a former assistant secretary of defense.
LAWRENCE KORB, former deputy assistant secretary of defense: I think he's gotten credit for a lot more things then he really deserves. And he's going to leave his successor, Leon Panetta, with a lot of problems that have not been solved.
First of all, it's going to be the budget. Secretary Gates didn't cut the defense budget. And he gives him a very difficult situation in Afghanistan that is more difficult than it should have been, if Gates, in his first year in office, had sent the troops that were needed there to stabilize that -- that particular situation.
KWAME HOLMAN: Gates leaves office June 30, and today, joined by departing Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, Gates held his final Pentagon news conference.
During a low-key and businesslike appearance, the secretary was asked the same question about Afghanistan that he answered with a blunt, "No," about Iraq four-and-a-half years ago: Is the U.S. winning?
ROBERT GATES: The one thing I -- I have learned a few things in four- and-a-half years. And -- and one of them is to try and stay away from loaded words like "winning" and "losing."
What I will say is that I believe we are being successful in implementing the president's strategy. And I believe that our military operations are being successful in denying the Taliban control of populated areas, degrading their capabilities, and improving the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces.
KWAME HOLMAN: With Pakistani-American diplomatic and military relations at a low ebb, Gates was asked what could stop a seeming downward spiral.
ROBERT GATES: We need each other. And we need each other more than just in the context of Afghanistan. Pakistan is an important player in terms of regional stability and in terms of Central Asia. And, so, my view is that this is a relationship where we just need to keep working at it.
There is the reality that Pakistan is a country that has a number of nuclear weapons. And, again, keeping those lines of communication open, it seems to me, is very important.
KWAME HOLMAN: Still to be determined in Gates' last days in office, the size of the first drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a decision the president is expected to make soon.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Lehrer will have a newsmaker interview with the departing Secretary Gates next Thursday, a week from tonight.