, WASHINGTON, Aug 17 – US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Monday he would step down in 2011, saying it would be clear by then whether the US surge strategy in Afghanistan was working.
Gates, 66, is the sole Republican holdover in President Barack Obama\’s cabinet, offering the Democratic president continuity on national security as he took charge of the White House and two wars last year.
Gates, a former CIA director with a 40-year career in government, has long hinted he wanted to leave. He was tapped by former president George W. Bush in 2006 to replace the controversial Donald Rumsfeld amid a near debacle in Iraq.
"I think that by next year I\’ll be in a position where — you know, we\’re going to know whether the strategy is working in Afghanistan," Gates said in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine.
"We\’ll have completed the surge. We\’ll have done the assessment in December. And it seems like somewhere there in 2011 is a logical opportunity to hand off."
Gates said it would be wrong for him to wait until January 2012 to try and hand over the reins as it could be tricky to "get a good candidate" in an election year when the administration might be voted out.
"I just think this is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of a presidential election. So I think sometime in 2011 sounds pretty good."
White House deputy spokesman Bill Burton said Obama was "gratefully thankful" for Gates\’s service "but any announcement will come from him."
"It\’s not a surprise to see him discussing his plans to move on," he told reporters.
A Pentagon spokesman said Gates "is not about to walk out the door" and has no specific date set to retire.
"He wasn\’t making any announcement. This is totally consistent with how he\’s spoken about his job and his tenure here," said spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
As a veteran Republican, Gates was seen as providing political cover and expertise as Obama fulfilled pledges to pull US troops from Iraq and refocused on the fight against Afghanistan\’s Taliban.
The United States is pouring some 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, part of the "surge" that will swell US numbers to 100,000 in the coming weeks.
Obama, announcing the strategy last year, said the United States would start pulling out troops in July 2011, sending a signal both to a wary US public and to an overly dependent Afghan leadership that the US commitment was not open ended.
But the timeline has been strongly criticized by some who believe it would boost the Taliban\’s resolve by sending out the message that America is not in the fight for the long-term.
"The July 2011 deadline was a hard hurdle for me to get over because I\’d fought against deadlines with respect to Iraq consistently," Gates told Foreign Policy.
"But I became persuaded that something like that was needed to get the attention of the Afghan government, that they had to take ownership of this thing," Gates said. "And I recognized the risks."
General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Afghanistan, in a televised interview on Sunday left open the option of recommending a delay in the withdrawal of troops if warranted by conditions on the ground.
The Obama administration has insisted the United States will remain engaged in Afghanistan well after July 2011. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pledged to take responsibility for security from US-led NATO forces by the end of 2014.
US public support for the near nine-year war has slumped to an all-time low and the US death toll hit a monthly high of 66 in July. A growing number of Democrats have called for an exit strategy, saying the war is hurting rather than helping US interests.
Speculation has been rife for months on Gates\’s successor.
Some pundits believe Obama may tap Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who dealt closely with military issues as a senator, to be the first female defense chief. Clinton has been coy about her plans but said she does not want to serve as the chief US diplomat if Obama is elected to a second term.
Other potential candidates include Michele Flournoy, the current under secretary of defense for policy, seen by some as being groomed for the top job, and former senator Sam Nunn, a conservative Democrat.
Obama is the seventh president Gates has served in a 40-year career at the heart of the US national security apparatus, mostly in the Central Intelligence Agency.
A former CIA director, Gates played a controversial role in Central America in the 1980s. He was implicated but not indicted in the Iran-Contra scandal in which the United States sold weapons to Iran\’s Islamic regime to fund Nicaragua\’s anti-communist rebels.
A wily Washington player, Gates has pressed the military\’s case in tight economic times, last month proposing to trim the Pentagon\’s massive budget to pre-empt calls for wider cuts.
Obama also named another Republican, Ray LaHood, as his transportation secretary.