BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, March 7, 2011 — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited Regional Command East troops here today to share his thoughts, seek their concerns and express his thanks.
Hundreds of service members assigned to Combined Joint Task Force 101 gathered inside a metal warehouse to listen to the secretary, who arrived in Afghanistan this morning.
“I really just wanted to come by here and thank you for your service, and through you, thank your families,” he told the crowd of uniformed men and women.
Regional Command East is under the command of Army Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, who also commands the deployed task force and the 101st Airborne Division. The command covers 14 provinces and 160 districts in eastern Afghanistan, including a 450-mile stretch along the border with Pakistan.
Gates praised the command’s success in working with and fighting alongside Afghan partner forces to make the command’s geographic area safer for the people who live there.
“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 said as secretary of defense, he feels personally responsible for every service member the nation sends to Afghanistan, and that he is committed to make sure they have what they need to be successful in their mission.
Gates then answered questions, which ranged from what keeps him up at night, to the likelihood of nine-month deployments for the Army, and to the future relationship between the United States and Afghanistan.
Concern for the troops is what keeps him up at night, Gates said.
“I think a lot about you people out here — what you have to put up with, the conditions you live in, the sacrifices you make,” the secretary said.
Gates told the troops he doesn’t believe nine-month deployments for the Army will happen any time soon, though Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Army chief of staff, has said he’d like to see them. His first goal for Army deployments is to make sure units get two years at their home stations for every one-year Afghanistan tour, the secretary said. The 2‑to‑1 deployment ratio will be in place for 70 percent of Army units this year, he added, and should be in effect for all Army formations by the end of next year.
Gates told the service members the United States is working with the Afghan government to build the process that will lead to transitioning the lead role in Afghan security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. The United States may keep a greatly reduced force in Afghanistan after that date, he added, if the Afghan government is interested.
“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.”
Gates also had lunch with some of the troops, then gave a commemorative coin and a handshake, and had a photo taken, with each service member in the audience.
Later this week, the secretary will travel to Stuttgart, Germany, for the U.S. Africa Command change of command, before moving on to Brussels, Belgium, for meetings with NATO defense ministers.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)