By Jules Witcover

When President Obama gathered his top advisers on Afghan policy at the White House for his latest assessment, soon-to-depart Secretary of Defense Robert Gates participated via videoconference from Afghanistan. But his advice already had been given on the ground: Don't grow more impatient.

Regarding Obama's oft-reiterated commitment to start withdrawing U.S. forces next month, Gates delivered his counsel to the soldiers themselves and in a long farewell interview with ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer. But the prime audience in each case was Obama himself.

As a strong advocate of the 30,000-troop surge that the president reluctantly acquiesced to after those interminable soul-searching sessions in late 2009, Gates has been an unchangeable defender of basing any pullout on "conditions on the ground." That is, listening to the generals who can best assess the progress or lack of it in the fight against the Taliban insurgency and the al-Qaida terrorists it harbors.

Gen. David Petraeus, the also soon-to-depart American commander in Afghanistan appointed by Obama to head the CIA, was at Gates' side as he reiterated the go-slow advocacy that Petraeus shares. A key question now is whether their joint advice will carry as much weight with Gates out of the inner circle and Petraeus shifted to the intelligence agency.

In retiring from the Army to take over the CIA, Petraeus obviously will remain in the top-level conversation, with intelligence gathering and evaluation remaining central to the war in Afghanistan. Not clear yet is whether Gates's replacement at the Pentagon, departing CIA director Leon Panetta, will be as forceful an advocate for only a very limited July drawdown.

The killing of Osama bin Laden has heightened calls from anti-war and other liberals in Congress for a significant reduction of the American presence in Afghanistan as Obama is conducting his promised review. Vice President Joe Biden, a key voice in the original discussions about the troop surge, is at the table again, still insisting the commencement of the troop withdrawal will be more than a token gesture.

White House press secretary Jay Carney, who formerly was Biden's vice-presidential spokesman, notably said Monday: "The president has yet to make a decision on the numbers. We have always said that it would be real. There were skeptics who suggested at the time when the president announced his policy that the July 2011 date for the beginning of a drawdown was not real. It will, in fact, begin then."

Carney reiterated that "the president is going to make his decision, as he has said all along, based on conditions on the ground, not whether or not there will be a drawdown, or the beginning of a drawdown, but the size and scope and pace of the drawdown."

The remarks reinforced that the current White House review will not be a rehashing of the basic decision Obama made in 2009. He agreed then to continue the counterinsurgency plan backed by Gates and Petraeus along with the stepped-up counterterrorism effort embraced by Biden and some others on the National Security Council.

Gates will take into retirement a long and varied career in public service, during which he has learned how to keep confidences but at the same time get the maximum public exposure for his views.

He demonstrated that ability in reassuring the American soldiers to whom he bid an official goodbye, and to the ABC anchor and her wide television audience, that his best advice to Obama is essentially to stay the course in Afghanistan a while longer. "I think we shouldn't let up on the gas too much, at least for the next few months," he told the troops Monday.

As for a more abrupt withdrawal, Gates said: "I think you also have to ask the question what's the cost of failure. We've invested a huge amount of money here. We've invested 1,254 lives up to this point." That comment by the departing Pentagon chief doubtless weighs heavily on Obama now, along with his 2008 pledge to end America's involvement in both Middle East wars.



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