By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden "could be a game-changer" that would have a significant impact on the war in Afghanistan.
Gates, speaking to about 450 airmen of the 335th and 336th Fighter Squadrons at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, said U.S. forces would probably be able to tell within six months whether bin Laden's death has had an effect on the war.
"I think that there is a possibility that it could be a game-changer," Gates said while fielding questions from service members at the base near Goldsboro.
"Bin Laden and (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar had a very close personal relationship and there are others in the Taliban who have felt betrayed by al Qaeda, (who felt) that it was because of al Qaeda's attack on the United States that the Taliban got thrown out of Afghanistan," he said.
"So we'll have to see what that relationship looks like. Frankly I think it's too early to make a judgment in terms of the impact inside Afghanistan, but I think in six months or so we'll probably know if it's made a difference," Gates said, according to a Pentagon transcript of his remarks.
Gates gave no indication that bin Laden's death would have an impact on the timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
"We will begin the drawdown in Afghanistan in July. But at the same time ... we don't expect the 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," he said.
Bin Laden was killed earlier this week in a raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, near Islamabad. The incident raised questions about how the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington could have lived in the house for years undetected by Pakistani authorities.
Responding to a question about Pakistan's commitment to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, Gates acknowledged the relationship was "complex" but pointed to Pakistan's effort against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in its own tribal areas and the use of its territory as a U.S. supply route.
"At the same time, there's no question they hedge their bets," Gates said. "Their view is that we have abandoned them four times in the last 45 years. And they're not sure we're going to stay in the region."
"So we just have to keep working at it, on both sides," he added. "I would say it is a relationship we just have to keep working at."
The defense secretary, who leaves office June 30, acknowledged that U.S. forces are stretched thin after nearly a decade at war, but he warned the airmen to expect that to continue for awhile longer.
"People have had, like many in this room have had, multiple rotations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, probably now also in Libya," he said. "And that's clearly going to continue for at least a couple more years."
(Editing by Vicki Allen)