KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN—Secretary of Defense Robert Gates took part this week in the first town hall meetings of his tenure as Pentagon chief during a trip that was originally meant to be a farewell to troops.
Gates has generally preferred to gather together smaller groups of soldiers for frank discussions, minus any commanders who might inhibit the troops' candor.
Town halls are generally a chance for troops to vent concerns and frustrations publicly. Some enthusiastically seize the opportunity, while others stick to polite policy questions that range from down in the weeds—say, new workout uniform suggestions—to military philosophy.
Gates kicked off one meeting here by telling troops why he decided to stay on as defense secretary under Barack Obama, explaining that, first, the president-elect asked him to. He told the troops, too, that if "hundreds of thousands of young Americans like you are out there doing your duty without fail or complaint, how could I do otherwise?"
Taking the job means that he has to further delay his retirement, he told them. "Now I have a better appreciation of what it's like to be stop-lossed," Gates said, referring to the Pentagon's policy of extending some service members' enlistment time involuntarily to delay their departure from the military.
The defense budget was a recurring theme among troops, and Gates was sanguine. "I may be whistling past the graveyard here, but I think we're not likely to see significant cuts in the defense budget in the next year or two." But he added that the economic crisis means that the sorts of significant increases that the defense budget has enjoyed in recent years are likely to come to a "screeching halt."
One attendee wondered why NATO allies weren't "shouldering their share of the burden" in Afghanistan—and if they continued not to, would the alliance remain relevant?
To this, Gates took an opportunity to vent a bit. That the United States is bearing a "disproportionate" share of the burden is a "real concern," said Gates. He added that the case hasn't been made "compellingly enough" to Europe that terrorist threats to the continent emanate from ungoverned areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
NATO allies "ought to be in a position" to send more police trainers to Afghanistan, Gates noted, adding that their current contributions were "trivial." NATO is a military alliance, he concluded, not a "talk shop."
With that, he cut himself off. "And I think I'll stop there before I get into trouble." After a pause he corrected himself: "More trouble."