By David Brunnstrom
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Ten years after the West intervened in Afghanistan, NATO said on Thursday its plans to hand over security responsibility to the Afghan government and gradually withdraw troops remained on track despite recent spectacular Taliban attacks.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he had assured NATO defense ministers that while lowering its own troop presence, the United States would not withdraw important resources such as medical evacuation teams, helicopters and intelligence gathering assets needed by allies.
He said fellow ministers, meeting in Brussels, had committed to see through the mission and avoid hasty withdrawals.
"It is clear that no one is rushing to the exits. To the contrary, there was a real commitment by all... to a long-term enduring relationship with Afghanistan," Panetta said.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Afghan forces were increasingly showing they were able to cope with the insurgency, and the handover to full Afghan security control should be complete by the end of 2014.
However, NATO would have to continue in a supporting role after that date, notably in training of Afghan forces, he said.
"Make no mistake, transition is not departure, we will not take our leave when the Afghans take the lead," Rasmussen told a news briefing, adding that NATO would agree a strategy of long-term support at a summit in Chicago in May.
"That means training, that means education. It means making sure that the Afghan forces and authorities have the skills and support they need to keep their country secure."
Rasmussen paid tribute to international and Afghan soldiers killed, including more than 2,750 members of the International Security Assistance Force, of which NATO took command in 2006.
He said NATO would stick to the security handover despite a recent spate of high-profile attacks, including an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the chief peace negotiator and former president.
"This is an important moment for Afghanistan," Rasmussen said. "Transition is on track and it will not be derailed."
"To those people who offer nothing but death and destruction to the people of Afghanistan, we say clearly you will not triumph," he added. "Our commitment to Afghanistan is firm, like that of our partners."
A DECADE OF WAR
Friday marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion.
On October 7, 2001, the United States, Britain and their Afghan allies launched an offensive that toppled the Taliban government sheltering members of the al Qaeda network responsible for the September 11 attacks on America that killed nearly 3,000 people.
NATO took over part of the international mission in 2003 and full control three years later. But despite the presence of more than 130,000 troops from nearly 50 countries, violence has reached its worst levels since the start of the war.
But Rasmussen insisted the overall security situation had improved and the number of Taliban attacks had decreased. Afghans now had the lead role in security in seven provinces and districts and the next phase of the transition would be announced soon.
Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, who took part in Thursday's meeting, said the security situation was not as bad as portrayed in "sensational headlines" and estimated that the Taliban had no more than 5,000 hard-core fighters.
"They are focusing on IEDS and roadside bombs and these sensational and spectacular attacks and assassination of government officials and national figures," he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans this year to withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops by year-end and 23,000 more by next summer. The United States has the biggest troop contingent and Obama's action prompted other nations to begin looking at timetables for their own withdrawal, raising concerns that a lack of coordination among the allies could endanger the troops.
German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere called for a "strategic patience" to make sure troop cuts did not jeopardize the security of the remaining forces and welcomed the assurance given by Panetta.
"We have been 10 years in Afghanistan. At the beginning of the operation there were too high expectations raised which were not achievable. We should not repeat this mistake. We should not make jittery announcements about the size and the speed of the troop withdrawal."
Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russe told reporters that Rome planned to start gradually decreasing its troop numbers in latter part of next year and to accelerate the process in 2013. Spanish Defense Minister Carme Chacon said Spain planned a 10 percent reduction in 2012.
Italy and Spain have about 4,000 and 1,500 troops in Afghanistan respectively.
(Addtional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach)