BRUSSELS - The United States warned European nations on Friday against a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan that could threaten the headway made in turning back a tenacious Taliban insurgency.
"Frankly, there is too much talk about leaving and not enough talk about getting the job done right," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a ministerial meeting.
Defence ministers from the nearly 50 nations with troops in Afghanistan are meeting in Brussels to endorse a plan to shift security leadership from foreign troops to Afghan police and soldiers. This is a key step in the West's plans to slowly wind down its military role in Afghanistan.
The United States, the dominant foreign force in Afghanistan with close to 100,000 soldiers, is preparing to begin withdrawing some troops this year.
"Let me be clear: uncoordinated national drawdowns would risk the gains made to date," Gates said. "Considerations about any drawdown of forces must be driven by security conditions ... not by mathematical calculation shaped by political concerns.
"Unfortunately some recent rhetoric -- to include that coming from capitals on this continent -- is calling into question ... resolve."
While U.S. commanders say they have weakened the Taliban in its southern heartland, Gates said there would likely be "harder and heavier fighting" in 2011.
While U.S. President Barack Obama wants to fulfil a promise to bring home some of the extra 30,000 troops he sent to Afghanistan after a strategy overhaul in 2009, foreign troops will continue to bear much of the burden for years to come.
Gates, who this week toured parts of southern Afghanistan where U.S. soldiers have taken heavy losses, has not yet announced how many troops will be withdrawn starting in July but it is expected to be a modest number.
Gates said the United States was "well-positioned" to begin a staged withdrawal, a first step toward ending a long and expensive war that U.S. lawmakers see as a budget concern.
Still, the United States worries that the global alliance in Afghanistan -- far more deep and broad than it ever was in Iraq -- will fall apart.
FISCAL PRESSURE, LACK OF POPULAR SUPPORT
As the 9/11 attacks that triggered the toppling of the Taliban recede into history, and the human and financial toll of the war grows, support has waned for a bloody, distant campaign that has killed over 2,000 foreign soldiers.
Even though many NATO nations plan to keep training missions in Afghanistan for some time, the fiscal crises of the past few years and a lack of public support for the war has added pressure on European leaders to plan their exit.
Germany, whose soldiers face mounting insecurity in northern Afghanistan, wants to start withdrawing troops this year if conditions allow. That may not be possible. France's foreign minister is pressing for a drawdown beginning this year while the Netherlands has already pulled out its combat troops.
Britain, with the second-largest troop force in Afghanistan, has said it wants to see combat troops out in 2015 and that it hopes to cut troop numbers this year if condtions allow.
Western plans to withdraw smoothly from Afghanistan will hang on the ability of Afghan troops to take over the fight against the Taliban, which has moved into some previous quiet areas of the country, by the end of 2014 as planned.
But local forces, while they are better trained and better equipped than they were, continue to struggle with illiteracy, high dropout rates and occasional insurgent infiltration.
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