KABUL (AP) — Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday told about a dozen of Afghanistan's senior military officials that the U.S. will be their partner for a long time despite plans to begin pulling troops out in 2011.

He spoke at Kabul airport, where the Afghan generals were en route to a meeting with U.S. officials in the southern city of Kandahar. There, the officers were to learn operational details from the U.S. about its plans to send 30,000 more troops by fall 2010.

Gates said the U.S. looks forward to the day the Afghans can take control of their country but "we will have a large number of forces here for some period beyond that."

"This is a relationship forged in blood," he said. "We will see it to the end."

Afghan officials thanked Gates and said it was a relief to hear the U.S. would not abandon them in 18 months.