FORWARD OPERATING BASE WALTON, Afghanistan - A soon-to-begin U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan should leave combat power intact as long as possible to press an anti-Taliban offensive, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday. He said support troops should go first.

On his final trip to assess a war in its 10th year, Gates told soldiers the endgame in Afghanistan is more likely to turn out well if the drawdown promised by President Obama begins with an emphasis on removing noncombat forces rather than the infantry and others still trying to cement recent gains against a resilient Taliban.

"If it were up to me, I would leave the shooters for last," he said.

The final decision is Obama's. The commander in chief soon will receive from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, a range of options on how to begin the withdrawal in July and how to pace it. Gates said at this dusty logistics base in Kandahar province.

Obama planned to gather his national security team today for his monthly meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Meanwhile yesterday, a NATO coalition helicopter crashed in eastern Afghanistan, killing two on board.

The helicopter crashed in the Sabari district of the eastern province of Khost, according to eyewitnesses. Khost, which borders Pakistan, is a Taliban stronghold and sits along important insurgent supply routes.

The crash's cause is being investigated, NATO said, adding that there were no reports of insurgent activity in the area at the time.

The coalition declined to release other details about the crash, including the nationalities of those killed.

In southern Afghanistan, an insurgent attack killed a NATO service member yesterday morning, the coalition said.