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Gates: bin Laden Death Could be 'Game Changer'

Defense Secretary Robert Gates waits for the start of a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, May 2, 2011

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the U.S. military and intelligence operation that killed Osama bin Laden could be a "game changer" in the war in Afghanistan, but the impact may not be certain for months.

During a visit to an air force base in North Carolina, a serviceman asked Gates about the impact of the killing of bin Laden during the raid in Pakistan on Monday.

"There is a possibility that it could be a game changer. Bin Laden and Mullah Omar had a very close personal relationship," said Gates. "And there are others in the Taliban that have felt betrayed by al-Qaida, that it was because of al-Qaida’s attack on the United States that the Taliban got thrown out of Afghanistan. So, we’ll have to see what that relationship looks like."

Gates said it could be six months or more before it becomes clear exactly how bin Laden’s death will affect the Taliban-al-Qaida relationship.

The secretary also was asked a question that many in Washington are asking - whether bin Laden’s death will make it possible to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan more quickly than had been expected.

"The president has been clear that the pace of the drawdown will be conditions based. So, I think that while we will see some gradual drawdowns beginning in July, I think that how fast those drawdowns go will depend largely on the situation on the ground," said Gates.

President Barack Obama has promised the U.S. withdrawal will begin in July. But he and other NATO leaders have agreed to maintain what Gates calls a "robust" troop presence for the next several years. Officials say some foreign troops may remain in Afghanistan even after the planned handover of full security responsibility to Afghan forces in 2014.

Gates also said the United States and Pakistan need to continue to work on their relationship. He praised Pakistan for doing more than he had expected to fight terrorism in recent years, but he said Pakistani officials may hedge their positions partly out of concern that the United States might withdraw from the region as it draws down its troops in Afghanistan. The relationship has been strained over several issues lately, and took another hit from the clandestine U.S. attack on bin Laden, just about 50 kilometers from the Pakistani capital.