NATO allies urge U.S. caution on Afghan troops

By David Brunnstrom

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – U.S. allies urged Washington on Thursday not to be too hasty in its plans to reduce American troop numbers in Afghanistan next month.

U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to announce he will bring a sizable number of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan home starting in July and U.S. lawmakers have been piling pressure on him to accelerate the end to a long, costly war.

Washington’s NATO allies are also keen to get their troops home, but many are concerned about the impact on the 10-year-old Afghan mission of too deep a cut in U.S. troop numbers.

“Last year the American government sent 30,000 additional troops … they have announced they will withdraw some of them this summer,” German Defense Minister Thomas De Maiziere said as NATO defense ministers met to discuss the Afghan operation.

“We fully understand this, but we are a bit concerned that if it were too many, the strategy might not be implemented as originally agreed. We are counting on a measured pace of the American president,” he told reporters.

British Defense Secretary Liam Fox, whose country has 9,500 troops in the nearly 50-state International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, said the reduction should be conducted carefully.

“We will be saying that any reduction in the surge should be done in such a way that doesn’t threaten our main effort in terms of combat in the south of the country,” he said.

“What is important is that we maintain our combat strength … to make sure we are not giving any space to the insurgency to wreck all the work we have done,” he told reporters.


NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was confident the alliance could stick to its timetable for handing over security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.

He stressed that the process of this transition, which is aimed at allowing a gradual reduction in foreign troop levels, was “based on conditions, not calendars” and stressed this would not be the end of NATO’s military presence.

De Maiziere said Germany would stick to its plans to start withdrawing its 4,900 troops at the end of this year or early next year, depending on conditions.

Fox said the aim was for British troops to end their combat role by the end of 2014 with a gradual withdrawal leading up to that date, again, depending on conditions.

Spanish Defense Minister Carme Chacon said Spain’s 1,500 troops would stick to a timetable for handing over to Afghan forces in Herat province this year and in Bamiyan next year.

After the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, U.S. Congressional opposition has quickly grown to a war that now costs over $110 billion a year and has yet to yield decisive results on the battlefield or in marathon aid efforts.

On Wednesday, leading senators from both main U.S. political parties called the U.S. presence in Afghanistan excessive.

The debate over the U.S. troop cuts and the impact of bin Laden’s death has revealed a divide between the White House and military commanders, who have warned a hasty reduction may be counter-productive.

Ryan Crocker, the one-time U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Pakistan whom Obama tapped as the new envoy in Kabul, said on Wednesday that progress from the troop increase was reversible.

(Additional reporting by Ilona Wissenback and Vanessa Romeo; editing by Elizabeth Piper)