BRUSSELS -- Five months before the Obama administration intends to begin troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned allies Friday against "ill-timed, precipitous or uncoordinated" drawdowns of their troops from the conflict.
"Frankly, there is too much talk about leaving and not enough talk about getting the job done right," Gates said in remarks to defense ministers from the 47 other countries that have troops in Afghanistan.
His remarks were in part an attempt to prevent allies in Europe from using the planned U.S. announcement of withdrawals in July as a pretext to bring out large numbers of their forces. The planned withdrawals are expected to be a small percentage of the overall U.S. force, but if allies with only a few thousand soldiers or fewer bring out similar numbers it could cause problems, officials said.
Gates spoke at a two-day meeting at NATO headquarters after visiting Afghanistan earlier in the week. Though his remarks were delivered in a closed meeting, the Pentagon released a transcript to reporters travelling with Gates.
He did not say which countries were talking about taking out troops, but he noted that much of the "recent rhetoric" about withdrawals was "coming from capitals" in Europe, which has seen continuing political debate about the cost of having troops deployed in Afghanistan, whether casualties are justifiable, and whether the war is winnable.
Behind the U.S., which has about 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, the biggest contributors are Britain with 9,500 soldiers, Germany with 4,909, France with 3,979, and Italy with 3,815. The non-U.S. troop contingent totals about 42,000 soldiers.
Italy said last year that it intends to begin troop withdrawals in the middle of this year. Germany's Parliament voted earlier this year to begin withdrawals in 2011 and complete its pullout by 2014. The French, Polish and Danish governments have also said they could begin drawdowns this year.
Gates did not say how large the first U.S. troop withdrawals will be later this year, but he implied, as he has before, that the reductions would be small.
"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 you," he told the other ministers.
At U.S. urging, NATO last November approved a timetable that calls for keeping large numbers of troops in Afghanistan through 2014, when the Afghan army is scheduled to assume the lead role for security throughout the country.
"We can't lose our momentum, or give in to calls to withdraw before the job is finished. America is willing to shoulder the lion's share of the burden, but we cannot do it alone," Gates said.
The NATO ministers Friday endorsed a plan that would turn over lead responsibility for initial areas of Afghanistan to the Afghan army. The Associated Press said the areas include the town of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, the cities of Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, and the provinces of Bamiyan and Panjshir. All except Lashkar Gah have long been considered largely free from insurgent attacks.
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