KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates appealed for patience with an unpopular war and said Saturday that only modest U.S. troop reductions would make sense this summer in a still unstable Afghanistan.
On his 12th and final visit to Afghanistan as Pentagon chief, Gates held out the possibility of reaching a turning point in the war by year's end. But Gates, who is retiring June 30, said much depends on whether the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden creates an opening for peace negotiations with leaders of the Taliban insurgency.
This and other aspects of the war, now in its 10th year, were on the agenda for Gates' meetings Saturday with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander here, and with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. A decision on U.S. troop reductions is expected in the next couple of weeks.
Gates stressed the effectiveness of U.S.-led NATO military operations against the Taliban over the last year, after President Obama ordered an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Gains have been notable in the south, the heartland of the Taliban movement.
"I believe that if we can hold on to the territory that has been recaptured from the Taliban . . . and perhaps expand that security, that we will be in position toward the end of this year to perhaps have a successful opening to reconciliation" with the Taliban - "or at least be in a position where we can say we've turned the corner here in Afghanistan," Gates said.
"Making any changes prior to that time would be premature," he added.
Together with remarks he made about Afghanistan earlier Saturday at a security conference in Singapore, Gates' statements suggest that he worries that large U.S. troop cuts this year would risk undermining battlefield gains and jeopardize a NATO-endorsed plan to remove all foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by 2015. The White House is pushing for bigger reductions than are favored by the military, and some in Congress have called for swiftly ordering a smaller troop commitment - one focused on hunting terrorists and insurgents, with fewer personnel and less money devoted to rebuilding Afghanistan's economy and corrupt government institutions.
Gates also is concerned that a U.S. troop withdrawal could lead other members of the coalition, known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), to quit or sharply reduce their participation.
"There will be no rush to the exits," he said.
In Singapore, Gates said the United States and its allies fighting in Afghanistan will have to keep up military pressure on the Taliban in order to eventually reach a peace deal.
Taliban forces "are probably a part of the political fabric of Afghanistan at this point," he said, so they could have a political role in the future. But to get to negotiations for a settlement, he said, the Taliban first will have to see a more severe reversal of its battlefield fortunes.
Gates said in Singapore that "perhaps this winter" some form of political negotiation could begin, but only if ISAF keeps up heavy military pressure to force the insurgents to the table.
"The prospects for a political settlement do not become real until the Taliban and our other adversaries begin to conclude that they cannot win militarily," Gates said.
In Kabul, Gates spoke at a news conference with President Hamid Karzai, who repeatedly stressed his anger about civilian deaths caused by coalition air strikes. Karzai also criticized night raids and detentions of innocent people.
"We cannot take this anymore," Karzai said, making no mention of civilian deaths attributed to Taliban fighters.
Gates offered conciliatory words about unintended civilian deaths and injuries.
"But we also know that the vast majority of civilian casualties are caused by the Taliban," he added.
During his Afghanistan visit, Gates planned to meet with soldiers and Marines.
Trudy Rubin, C1.