U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is retiring at the end of the month, arrived in southern Afghanistan Sunday to say goodbye to American troops fighting to defeat Taliban insurgents.
Gates' visit comes at the same time as U.S. President Barack Obama is considering the scale and pace of troop withdrawals planned to start next month.
Speaking to troops at a base in southern Helmand province, Gates said he would prefer that support troops, not combat soldiers, be pulled out first. He said earlier that only modest reductions to troop levels would be made over the next few months.
The defense secretary warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai that his country needs to increase security, and that failure to do so would put the smooth withdrawal of U.S. forces at risk.
On Saturday at a security conference in Singapore, Gates said there could be peace talks with the Taliban within a year. He said the talks would be a result of NATO's ground advances in Afghanistan that have put pressure on the insurgents.
It has been nearly 10 years since U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban government and go after al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
U.S. special forces killed bin Laden last month during a raid in neighboring Pakistan. The U.S.-Afghan relationship has become more tense, with Afghan President Karzai repeatedly criticizing the U.S. and NATO for killing civilians during attacks on militants.