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Gates to NATO Allies: Do Not Rush Out of Afghanistan

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates speaks during a media conference after a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, June 9, 2011.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged NATO allies Thursday to not rush out of Afghanistan, even as the United States prepares to start withdrawing its own troops next month. The secretary made his comments at a defense ministers meeting at NATO headquarters.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had a clear message for America's NATO allies regarding the changes their Afghan mission faces in July.

"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," said Gates.

Gates was speaking to reporters Thursday on the sidelines of his final NATO meeting in Brussels before retiring from defense secretary on June 30.

U.S. President Barack Obama remains committed to beginning a troop pullout from Afghanistan next month, but it remains unclear just how many U.S. personnel will go.

During his recent travels, which included stops in Afghanistan this week, Secretary Gates has repeatedly called for the drawdown to proceed at a cautious pace.

While NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen refused Thursday to commit to either timelines or figures for a pullout, he stressed that there would "be no rush for the exit" in Afghanistan by NATO or its partners.

He said the country remains the alliance's "top operational priority" and predicted that the Afghan government will take full control of security within the next few years.

"In July, Afghans will take [the] security lead in seven provinces and districts, representing 25 percent of the population," Rasmussen explained. "That is a significant start to transition. And I am confident that we can complete it by the end of 2014."

Defense Secretary Gates has said he sees an end in sight for the Afghan war, thanks to security gains made within the past 18 months. But violence continues to rage in Afghanistan's south and east, with Taliban militants launching daring attacks on Afghan government and security targets.