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Gates Warns Coalition Not to Abandon Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Gates holds a news conference at a NATO defense ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, March 10, 2011
U.S. Defense Secretary Gates holds a news conference at a NATO defense ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, March 10, 2011
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Al Pessin

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called on NATO allies and other nations with troops in Afghanistan not to make what he called "ill-timed, precipitous, or uncoordinated" withdrawals after the United States begins its gradual drawdown in July. Gates met with representatives of the 47 other contributing nations and the Afghan defense minister Friday morning.

According to a strongly-worded advance text provided to reporters, Secretary Gates told the delegates he is hearing "too much talk about leaving" Afghanistan from European capitals, "and not enough talk about getting the job done right."

Gates said he recognizes that some European nations have lost many troops in Afghanistan, and some governments are under political pressure withdraw their troops. He called on them to "resist the urge to do what is politically expedient and have the courage of patience."

For many countries, including the United States, 2010 saw the highest casualty tolls in Afghanistan in the nine years of war.

But Gates said the effort in Afghanistan made "undeniable progress" in the past year, due in part to a surge of U.S. and coalition troops. He said security areas have been expanded and Taliban fighters are "demoralized."

He said they face a tough challenge as they try to retake ground in the coming warmer months. Gates said that territory is no longer the Taliban's "home field," but he said the insurgents "have shown their resilience in the past" and he expects "fierce fighting."

The United States will draw down some of its surge forces starting in July, as President Barack Obama promised when he announced the surge 14 months ago. But Gates said the United States "will not sacrifice the significant gains made to date, or the lives lost, for a political gesture." And he called on the partner nations to adopt the same approach.

He said "uncoordinated national drawdowns would risk the gains made to date," and that any troop reductions should be coordinated through the coalition commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General David Petraeus. The general also made a report to the meeting, but that was not made public.

The text provided by Gates' staff urges the representatives of the contributing nations to adopt a set of "implementing principles," which he says ensure that while the foreign troops withdraw gradually and transfer responsibility to Afghan forces there will be no lapse of security.

Speaking Thursday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also referred to that document.

"We will take the important decision to endorse the important recommendation from the Joint Transition Board, which will be the start of a process leading to increasing Afghan responsibility for security in their own country," Rasmussen said.

But Rasmussen noted that the process will continue until the end of 2014, and even after that some foreign troops will need to stay in Afghanistan.

"We will, of course, stay in a supporting role," Rasmussen stressed. "We will move from a combat role into a supporting role and assist if necessary."

In the speech text for Friday, Secretary Gates called on contributing nations to keep forces in Afghanistan even if the areas where they operate are handed over to Afghan forces. Gates said the foreign troops will still be needed in other areas, and for short-staffed training programs.

Gates also challenged coalition nations to contribute one billion euros annually to the development of the Afghan security forces, noting that the United States is planning to spend more than $12 billion next year for that effort, and is spending $120 billion annually on the Afghan campaign overall.

The secretary said a NATO failure in Afghanistan would leave the Afghan government unable to provide corruption-free justice and security to its people, recreating the situation that led to the rise of the Taliban 20 years ago. He said the coalition needs to work to make the recent progress "irreversible."

Gates called on the coalition to adopt an "in together, out together" approach. He said, "We can't lose our momentum, or give in to calls to withdraw before the job is finished." He told the delegates, "America is willing to shoulder the lion's share of the burden, but we cannot do it alone."

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