Defense ministers from the NATO military alliance were urged Thursday not to rush out of combat operations in Afghanistan as outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates vowed that an upcoming US troop drawdown did not equate to a hasty exit from the country.
"Even as the United States begins to draw down next month, I assured my fellow ministers that there will be no rush to the exits on our part - and we expect the same from our allies," he told a news conference after the ministers' meeting in Brussels.
"We are making substantial military progress on the ground... these gains could be threatened if we do not proceed with the transition to Afghan security lead in a deliberate, organized, and coordinated manner," he added.
With troop casualties in Afghanistan growing, NATO countries are finding the mission increasingly difficult to justify at home. Add to this heavy budgetary pressures and it's no wonder governments want to withdraw troops as soon as possible.
Support to continue
German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere explained after the meeting that ceasing combat operations would not mean an end to overall engagement in Afghanistan.
"We want to end our combat mission by 2014. Beyond that time, there will be different forms of support, but towards the end of this year or the beginning of next year, if conditions allow, we'll start withdrawing," he told his NATO counterparts.
But the political climate in Washington still has many guessing as to the exact nature of a US troop drawdown. Gates has been pushing for a measured withdrawal - justified, he says, by the perceived success of a recent troop surge - whilst others in the White House want to see a more profound reduction of the 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan, who are reinforced by some 30,000 foreign soldiers.
Thomas de Maiziere said NATO nations were banking on a drawn-out withdrawal of US troops.
"We are a little concerned that if it's too much then the strategy cannot be implemented as agreed. We hope for a moderate step by the American president," he told reporters.
The thinking among many NATO allies is that troops might be brought home too early, potentially leaving a dangerous power vacuum in Afghanistan which the Taliban would be eager to fill.
But NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen tried to soothe ministers' concerns over any pullout by the nearly 50 nations which make up the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
"There will be no rush for the exits. And that has been confirmed at today's meeting. On the contrary, all ISAF partners will stay committed and see this through," he said.
Author: Darren Mara (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Michael Lawton