Robert Gates' days as defense secretary now number just 24. But before he goes, consider this number: 646,094.
That's the number of miles he has traveled outside the U.S. in 4 1/2 years while leading a wartime Pentagon, according to his official travel logs. He'll add to his total by about 21,500 when he completes his current trip, an 11-day round-the-world finale with a last stop in Brussels to attend NATO meetings.
The grand total of 667,594 is the equivalent of flying around the world 26 times at the Equator.
His top destinations? Iraq and Afghanistan, where America is still waging two wars.
The 1,400-plus hours he has spent in the air to show the Pentagon flag abroad is the equivalent of 58 days _ nearly two months. Most of that was aboard a modified Boeing 747 equipped to serve as an airborne command post for the president and top aides in the event of a nuclear war. The so-called "Doomsday" plane can be refueled in flight, saving time, and can communicate directly with nuclear-armed submarines lurking under the seas.
Gates, who is retiring at the end of the month, has visited 104 countries _ many of them more than once.
His No. 1 destination: Iraq. That was the war uppermost on his mind and that of the American public when Gates took over for Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon in December 2006. Gates hopped a plane to Baghdad the day after he was sworn in, and he returned with regularity each succeeding year as U.S. war fortunes improved. His 13th and final visit was in April.
Second on the Gates list is Afghanistan, the other war _ the one that took a back seat to Iraq until President Barack Obama took office in 2009 and declared that he would get the U.S. military out of Iraq and devote more resources to the war he believed was more crucial to U.S. security: Afghanistan.
Gates spent four days in Afghanistan on his current trip _ the longest such visit by a Pentagon chief since the war began a decade ago. It was his 12th and it had important echoes of his first, in January 2007. On that trip, when the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was one-quarter today's total, Gates stressed the importance of persuading Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries that allow al-Qaida and other groups to train and plan for attacks in Afghanistan and beyond.
"These are issues that we clearly have to pursue with the Pakistani government," he said on Jan. 16, 2007 at a Kabul news conference with President Hamid Karzai.
More than four years later, again standing beside Karzai in Kabul, Gates lamented the "terrorist sanctuaries along the border, particularly on the Pakistani side." He added: "The sanctuaries are a problem," and "we will continue to work ... with the government of Pakistan to try and deal with this problem."
On that score, one thing has changed on Gates' watch. The top-priority terror target in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden, is now gone.
No secretary of defense travels abroad for the fun of it. It's a grind under the best circumstances. Under tough circumstances, like in Afghanistan's southern desert Sunday, where temperatures topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit and there was little escape, even for a defense secretary with a doting entourage, it's more than a grind. It's a pounding, mind-numbing march.
And it's not without risks. On a stop Monday at a vulnerable outpost in Afghanistan's eastern Logar province, an Army officer let Gates' party know that if the base came under attack they should drop everything and duck into a bomb shelter a few steps away. "But don't trample the secretary," he advised.
As the Pentagon chief for an international power, international travel is deemed indispensible. It puts Gates in personal touch with troops and their commanders in far-flung corners of the planet and allows him to attend meetings with allied leaders and others. Gates, for example, attended for five consecutive years a security conference in Singapore known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, which draws top officials and defense experts from across Asia and provides a chance to demonstrate U.S. commitments in that region.
Among other destinations he visited more than once: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and Israel in the Middle East; Germany, England, Turkey and Russia in Europe; China, Pakistan, Japan and Korea in Asia; and, closer to home, Canada and Mexico. The list is dominated by treaty allies but includes others of more ambiguous status.
Gates' designated successor, Leon Panetta, is likely to visit Afghanistan and possibly Iraq shortly after he takes over July 1, assuming he wins Senate confirmation.
By then, Gates will have flown off to his retirement home in Washington state.
Robert Burns can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP