ABC News' Mary Bruce reports:
Continuing his farewell visit in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told troops today that “shooters” should be the last to pull out of the war-torn country, claiming it was a “no-brainer” that combat troops should be the last to leave.
“For my money… if it were up to me, I would leave the shooters for last,” Gates told a group of soldiers at Forward Operating Base Walton in Kandahar, according to the Associated Press. “I'd try to maximize my combat capability as long as this process goes on… I think that's a no-brainer,” he later explained to the press.
The Secretary, who is retiring at the end of the month, is evaluating the situation on the ground in Afghanistan just weeks before President Obama is expected to sign off on the start of the process to withdraw the 100,000 U.S. forces now in the war zone.
Gates reiterated that the decision about when to pull out combat troops is up to the commanders in the field. "I think the mix of what comes out is really up to General Petraeus and then General Allen in terms of composition and which units are selected,” he said.
Given the troop numbers, however, Gates said the drawdown this summer would likely be a combination of combat and support elements. “I think it will be a mix. We don't have that many support people out here, so it's probably going to end up being a mix. Some combat elements and some support elements. All I was saying, is if I were in Petraeus' shoes, John Allen's shoes, if it were six of one, half dozen of the other, I would opt to keep the shooters and take the support out. But the numbers are such that it's going to have to be both."
Since arriving in Afghanistan on Saturday, Gates has been expressing his concerns about pulling troops out of Afghanistan. "Nobody wants to give up the gains that have been won at such a hard cost, and nobody wants to give our allies the excuse to run for the exits,” Gates told the troops at Walton. “I have confidence that we'll strike the right balance."
The tour is also an opportunity for Gates to thank the troops for their service and sacrifice. “More than anybody except the president, I'm responsible for you being here. I'm the person that signed the deployment papers that got you here, and that weighs on me every day,” Gates told troops today while choking back tears. “I feel your hardship and your sacrifice and your burden, and that of your families, more than you can possibly know. You are, I believe, the best our country has to offer, and you will be in my thoughts and prayers, everyday for the rest of my life. Thank you."