05/06/11 — Sec. Gates: Bin Laden's death might be a 'game-changer'

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Sec. Gates: Bin Laden's death might be a 'game-changer'

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 6, 2011 1:46 PM

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks to airmen and guests at Seymour Johnson AFB this morning.

Some asked about how the budget crisis would impact future generations of service members.

Others wanted a characterization of the nation's relationship with countries in the Middle East.

But the first question Defense Secretary Robert Gates fielded from the hundreds of airmen gathered in a hangar on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base this morning had to do with the news seemingly every American has been tracking since Sunday.

Holding a microphone close to his mouth, an airman asked how the killing of Osama bin Laden would impact the everyday military man and woman.

"The killing of Osama bin Laden, in terms of the situation in Afghanistan, I think that there is a possibility that it could be a game changer," he said.

But he was quick to note that withdrawal plans have not yet been changed -- that it was simply too early to make a judgment on just what the al-Qaida leader's death means to the Global War on Terror.

"But I think in six months or so, we'll probably know if it's made a difference," Gates added.

The secretary then fielded a question about what the next military campaign -- after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are completed -- might be.

"Now that we're pulling out of Afghanistan, do you see our focus ... moving to any other area of operation?" an airman asked.

Gates, though, wasn't quick to acknowledge an end in sight for current military operations.

"Well I think it remains to be seen, first of all, whether we maintain a presence in Iraq after the end of December," Gates said. "We will begin the drawdown in Afghanistan in July, but at the same time, we recognize ... that we don't expect a transition to Afghan Security lead to be completed until the end of 2014. So we will still have a robust presence in Afghanistan for at least the next three years. ... The pace of the drawdown will be condition-based.

"In terms of other places, you know, since Vietnam, we have an absolutely perfect record in forecasting where we will use military force next. We have never once gotten it right."

Before he wrapped up the "conversation" -- after he was done with the question-and-answer session, the secretary awarded special coins to some 300 airmen who have just returned from, or are about to go to, war -- several airmen asked about the budget -- just how the recent near-government shutdown and the nation's mounting debt might affect defense spending; whether or not it could create a national security crisis.

"Do you think the current budget crisis is a threat to national security?" an airman asked.

Gates' response was frank.

"In the long term, there is no question in my mind," he said.

But his brief stint in Goldsboro was about more than answering tough questions and handing out awards.

Gates, who is set to step down at the end of June, also wanted to say farewell -- and thanks.

"The Air Force -- you -- are playing a critical role in the fight in Afghanistan, as you have in Iraq," he said. "Almost all of you are just getting back from a deployment or you're heading there soon. So I wanted to come here and thank you for your service, your sacrifice.

"There are a lot of people on the ground in Afghanistan today who are alive because of airmen like you."