WARDAK PROVINCE, Afghanistan (AP) – Defense Secretary Robert Gates looked over his shoulder Friday, not at the craggy, snowcapped peaks of Afghanistan or men in tribal dress behind him, but at his own role in walking away from the country years ago.

Gates was a deputy national security adviser and CIA director during the late 1980s and early 1990s as then-President George H.W. Bush pulled the plug on years of U.S. aid to Afghanistan.

The Soviets had just been pushed out of the country, and America turned its attention elsewhere.

It was only a few years later that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, operating out of Afghanistan, ordered the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. Eight years after that came 9/11.

“If there’s one lesson I draw from the past, it is the importance of our staying engaged,” Gates told reporters Friday at Forward Operating Base Airborne in northern Afghanistan, shortly before heading back to Washington.

“And if there’s a lesson for Americans and the international community, it’s that we don’t dare turn our backs on Afghanistan. This will work if we stay engaged.”

Gates’ attention to Afghanistan draws on a personal sense of regret for abandoning the country when America was still considered a reliable ally.

It helps explain why the Pentagon chief is so focused on Afghanistan when more than twice as many troops remain in Iraq for a combat mission that is, overall, expected to run more than twice as long.

“We weren’t attacked out of any place else,” he said. “We were attacked out of Afghanistan. And if Afghanistan becomes a safe haven (for terrorists) again, we and others will be attacked again.”

The threat posed by extremist militants in next-door Pakistan were also on Gates’ mind during a three-day visit to Afghanistan this week.

He made clear that he has no intention of deploying U.S. troops in Pakistan, a sovereign nation that has not asked for such help.

So he will gear up for a different battle. Gen. David McKiernan is asking Gates, who arrived back in Washington early Saturday after a weeklong overseas trip, to boost U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan by at least one brigade of about 3,500 soldiers.

Gates also wants to outfit them with new trucks, additional helicopters and spy drones as part of the Obama administration’s anxious attempt to keep extremists from crossing the mountainous Afghan-Pakistan border that is all but impossible to patrol.

As Gates saw this week, Afghanistan’s immediate outlook remains bleak. Violence in the south, the Taliban’s breeding ground, is expected to spike between now and the aftermath of the nation’s Aug. 20 elections, said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson. Troops are being deployed across Afghanistan faster than the trucks, communications tools and other equipment they will need to fight safely can catch up with them.

Efforts to end Afghan poppy farming, which feeds the world’s heroin supply and is a major Taliban source of income, will be slow in success, said Francis Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul.

There are some encouraging signs. Gates was at the Airborne base Friday to meet with Wardak province officials who in March created a security force of local tribesmen to assist the Afghan police and army. The U.S. is largely training, outfitting and paying the $125 salaries of the security guards who have proven themselves talented at finding IEDs and other bombs before they explode.

Province Gov. Halim Fadai said explosives on the region’s main highway have gone down by 80 percent over the last few months.

“These folks are connected to the community just like a chain,” said Zib Kaha, commander of the security force in Jalrez district, part of Wardak province. “We are connected to the community, and we know that reality on the ground, and that is why we will be successful.”

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