Gates spoke to members of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. The wing has been deployed here since January 2002 in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The unit has a refueling mission, a reconnaissance mission and also provides air command and control for the U.S. Central Command area of operations.
Not surprisingly, the airmen and soldiers at the base wanted to know how operations in the theater are going.
Gates told the group that the extraordinary turnout in the Iraqi election held March 7, is a good sign for the future. Before the election, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, told Gates that a turnout of 50 to 55 percent would be good, and a turnout of 55 to 60 percent would be outstanding. "We apparently ended up with 62 percent turnout," the secretary said. "When you think of where we were three years ago, ... the progress there has been extraordinary."
If the Iraqis can form a government quickly, the secretary said, he sees no reason why the United States could not meet the marks set for the U.S. withdrawal from the country. That would mean all combat units will be out of Iraq by the end of August, and all American forces will be gone by the end of 2011.
The subject shifted to Iran, whose nuclear program disturbs all countries in the region. By coincidence, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad visited neighboring Afghanistan at the same time that Gates was in the country. The Iranian leader met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai the day after Gates met with him.
Some Iranian-made weapons and supplies have ended up in the hands of the Taliban, but that is not yet having a negative impact on the U.S. and international efforts in Afghanistan, Gates said.
The secretary joked that he and Ahmedinijad "exchanged a few words through the media yesterday."
"I talked about Iran playing a double game with Afghanistan – wanting to have a good relationship with the Afghan government, but wanting to make our lives harder and our lives more difficult," the secretary said.
But so far, he added, the Iranian level of effort in Afghanistan is not a major problem. "The level of their support to the Taliban has, so far as we can tell, been pretty limited," Gates said. "I was just trying to express the hope that it wouldn't get any worse than that."
The conflict there will take time, the secretary said, though commanders in the country told him during his visit earlier this week that the Taliban momentum has been blunted.
"What I've tried to point out to folks is that of the 30,000 troops that the president ordered for the surge in Afghanistan, only about 6,000 are in country so far," he said.
The rest of the troops will be deployed by the end of August, and that will allow the new strategy in the country to be fully implemented. "The civilian capacity that is equally important to our success there is just arriving and getting in to place as well," the secretary said.
A key element of the new strategy involves obtaining more trainers for the Afghan security forces. U.S., NATO and international partners are working on getting the training teams in place that Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, says he needs, Gates said.
"My view is all the pieces needed to be successful in Afghanistan – including increasing the size of the Afghan national army and police – are just beginning to come together," he said. "My view is that the signs we have seen so far indicate to me that General McChrystal's strategy is working, but it's still a hard fight ahead of us."
Gates thanked the members of the unit for their efforts. He said they are helping to make a difference in Afghanistan in particular. "You've flown thousands of sorties providing support for those in action," he said. "And I can tell you, I spent a good part of [March 9] in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, and those men and women on the ground know how much they owe you all for the support you've given them. You save lives every day."
Gates asked the servicemembers to thank their families for him.
"You couldn't do what you do without their support back home and I want you to pass along from me personally that we recognize how much they sacrifice and how important their support for you is," he said.
The secretary then shook the hand of every member of the audience and handed his commemorative coin to them.