Gates urges NATO not to leave Afghanistan 'prematurely'
BRUSSELS, Belgium — In a sternly worded address to the 48 countries contributing troops to the Afghanistan War, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned against wavering on promises to see the fight through to 2014.
“Frankly, there is too much talk about leaving and not enough talk about getting the job done right,” Gates said at NATO headquarters Friday, specifically calling out “capitals on this continent.”
“Too much discussion of exit and not enough discussion about continuing the fight. Too much concern about when and how many troops might redeploy, and not enough about what needs to be done before they leave.”
After visiting some of Afghanistan’s most contested areas this week, Gates endorsed President Barack Obama’s goal of pulling out some U.S. forces beginning this July.
Commanders at Bagram Air Field in the east and in Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south reported their winter gains — the most significant of the war — will be tested as mid-level Taliban fighters come streaming back from Pakistan with the start of the spring fighting season.
Gates said the July drawdown would be limited and not likely occurring in the south or southwest, which are still seeing heavier fighting.
With the U.S. investing 100,000 troops, $120 billion per year, and $12.8 billion to build the Afghan security forces, Gates said the coalition needs to “keep our focus.”
“We will not sacrifice the significant gains made to date, or the lives lost, for a political gesture,” he said. “In return, we expect the same from your nations.”
Without the coalition’s unified support, he said, “the progress we now see could be threatened.”
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates was not speaking to any government in particular. Rather, he was addressing wider political debates lingering over the still unpopular war.
Gen. David Petraeus and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Adm. James Stavridis also addressed Friday’s closed session, which included Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.
There are roughly 42,000 non-U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan, according to NATO. Their numbers range from Britain’s 9,500 to Iceland’s two.
On Tuesday, U.S. commanders in Sangin and Arghandab, Afghanistan, told Gates the announcement in November that NATO forces would remain in Afghanistan through 2014 helped convince locals to switch allegiances from the Taliban to the coalition and Afghan government, and helped boost recruiting for Afghan security forces.
But under political pressure to get out of the war, following the U.S. lead, British leaders last year said they may begin to pull some forces out in 2011, and in January, Germany’s parliament voted to start withdrawing some of its 4,900 troops this year. Poland also might start withdrawing forces this year.
NATO and International Security Assistance Force ministers endorsed a plan to transfer security to Afghan forces in some parts of the country beginning this year. President Hamid Karzai is expected to announce the details timed to the Afghan new year later this month. Each area could take 12 to 18 months to complete the transition, a NATO release said.
On Friday, Gates asked for money for the Afghan forces — about $1.4 billion per year — on top of the $12.8 billion Obama seeks for fiscal 2012 for the security forces.
“We can’t lose our momentum, or give in to calls to withdraw before the job is finished,” said Gates.