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Outgoing Gates Cites Afghan Success, Sees Challenges For Al-Qaeda

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
In his final press conference before stepping down, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reflected on the war effort in Afghanistan and the mission to dismantle Al-Qaeda, the two topics that have dominated his tenure under the presidency of Barack Obama.

However, when a reporter at the Pentagon asked him whether the United States was "winning" in Afghanistan, Gates called upon experience from even earlier in his career.

He was asked the same question about Iraq at his Senate confirmation hearing in 2006, famously replying that the United States was neither winning nor losing.

"I have learned a few things in 4 1/2 years, and one of them is to stay away from loaded words like 'winning' and 'losing,'" Gates said on June 16.

But he said that under his watch, key goals of the mission had been advanced and were continuing.

"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," Gates said.

"Those were three of the tasks that the president laid out for us in December of 2009 and the other was reversing the momentum of the Taliban. I think in all four of those cases we are succeeding."

The key, he added, is how to complete the mission in a way that protects U.S. national security interests and also contributes to stability -- two goals he said the United States has "largely done in Iraq."

Under President George W. Bush, Gates orchestrated the 2007 surge of troops in Iraq, which improved security conditions. Gates also oversaw the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

In Afghanistan, Gates has also overseen troop surges and is finishing his service as the head of the Pentagon just as Obama plans to start withdrawing troops from the country.

The president, who has said he will begin pulling out the some 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July, has advocated an initial withdrawal of significant size.

Gates has advocated a more modest initial withdrawal. He did not comment at his press conference on the extent or timing of the pullout.

But he did look ahead to another challenge that Washington will face without him -- how to deal with Al-Qaeda's new leadership.

'Challenges' For Al-Qaeda Head

In a statement posted on an Al-Qaeda-linked website, the terrorist organization announced that Ayman al-Zawahri would replace Obama bin Laden as leader. Bin Laden was killed in a U.S. raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2.

Zawahri, said to be behind the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, has long been second in command of the organization. He is now the United States' most-wanted terrorist.

Gates predicted that Zawahri would face "challenges" in his new leadership position.

"Bin Laden has been the leader of Al-Qaeda essentially since its inception. In that particular context, he had a peculiar charisma that I think Zawahiri does not have [and] I think [bin Laden] was much more operationally engaged than we have the sense Zawahiri has been," Gates said.

Experts, however, have questioned bin Laden's tactical importance within Al-Qaeda in recent years.

Gates also said he had read that there is some "suspicion" of Zawahri within the terrorist network because he is Egyptian-born. Bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia.

But Gates also said that the appointment of a successor to bin Laden should serve as a reminder that Al-Qaeda "seeks to perpetuate itself" and to will continue to try to attack the United States and its allies.

U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen, who plans to retire this fall, was also at the press conference.

He said Zawahri, like his predecessor, would be a military target.

"He and his organization still threaten us, and as we did both seek to capture and kill -- and succeeded in killing bin Laden, we certainly will do the same thing with Zawahri," he said.

Gates also spoke briefly on the United States' complex relationship with Pakistan, which has hit a low point since bin Laden was discovered hiding in the northeast of the country near a prestigious military academy.

The discovery led many members of Congress to question Pakistan's allegiances, but Gates said Al-Qaeda may have similar doubts.

"There is some indication that Al-Qaeda is worried that because of the way we went after bin Laden. Their suspicion is that the Pakistanis may have been involved in it and are worried that the Pakistanis may betray them as well," he said.

Gates will retire at the end of this month. Obama's nominee to replace him is Leon Panetta, the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Panetta's nomination is expected to gain swift congressional approval.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said on June 16 that General David Petraeus, along with other members of the U.S. national security team, met with President Barack Obama at the White House on June 15 to discuss a range of options for starting the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in July.

with additional wire reporting

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