In a blunt warning to U.S. allies eager to pull out of Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday that while the U.S. intends to begin withdrawing troops in July, a rush to the exits by European forces would risk squandering battlefield gains achieved at great American expense.
In a closed-door meeting of NATO defense ministers, Gates urged the allies to resist domestic political pressure to depart prematurely, while asserting that the U.S. troop reductions promised by President Barack Obama will be made this summer "based on conditions on the ground," not politics.
Gates' remarks amounted to a stark challenge to the allies: Help Washington manage a smart, careful wind-down of the war or risk losing it.
He pointedly noted that the U.S. is spending $120 billion a year on the war and has 100,000 troops in the fight _ more than double the allies' total. He made no direct mention of the political pressures in the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan, a war that has grown increasingly unpopular. But he noted that U.S. forces _ and those of some allies _ suffered more casualties in Afghanistan last year than in any previous year of the war.
"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." Any troop pullouts, he said, must be coordinated within NATO and driven by security conditions, not by calculations shaped by political concerns.
"We can't lose our momentum or give in to calls to withdraw before the job is finished," Gates said. "America is willing to bear the lion's share of the burden, but we cannot do it alone."
At the opening of Friday's meeting, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen offered an upbeat assessment of progress in the war. He said Afghan security forces have made great strides under NATO training.
"They are now ready to gradually assume lead responsibility for the security of their nation and their people," Fogh Rasmussen said. His remarks were open to reporters but the rest of the day's session was closed.
The European allies long have seen their preferred role in the war as supporting noncombat aspects of the effort to overcome the Taliban insurgency. Gates has spent much of his four years in office cajoling the allies to do more, either in combat roles or in training Afghan security forces.
In November, Obama and other NATO leaders pledged in Lisbon, Portugal, to begin handing off security responsibility to the Afghan government this year and to complete that transition by the end of 2014, essentially setting that as the target date for the joint U.S.-NATO combat mission to end. At the time, the 2014 date was seen as committing the allies to a coordinated wind-down of combat. Some now see it as an invitation to leave as domestic political demands require.
Gates said he fears that talk among Europeans of getting out earlier could breathe new life into the Taliban, which remains formidable.
"Unfortunately, some recent rhetoric coming from capitals on this continent _ is calling into question" the resolve expressed at Lisbon, he said. "Frankly, there is too much talk about leaving and not enough about getting the job done right. Too much discussion of exit and not enough discussion about continuing the fight" and figuring out what needs to be accomplished before the troops leave.
He also challenged the allies to put up more cash to pay for building the Afghan national army, whose role he called vital to the war's outcome.
Gates described the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan and provided a haven for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden until the U.S. invasion in October 2001 drove the Islamic extremists from power, as "increasingly demoralized" by a surge in U.S. and NATO military operations last year.
"But our enemies have shown their resilience in the past, and we are fully expecting fierce fighting in the months ahead," the Pentagon chief said.
At their meeting Friday at NATO headquarters, the allied defense ministers were expected to endorse a set of principles to guide the transition to Afghan control of its security starting this year. One of the principles is "reinvestment of forces," meaning agreement that troops who are no longer needed for combat missions would be replaced, possibly in equal numbers, by troops to perform training or other work to support Afghan forces.
Earlier this week Gates spent two days in Afghanistan visiting U.S. troops and commanders and meeting with senior Afghan officials. He said he saw encouraging signs of progress that put the U.S. and NATO in good position to begin handing off security responsibility to the Afghans.
In his remarks Friday, Gates said that in parallel with recent security gains, Afghanistan still suffers from "a vacuum of governance" in key areas. For that reason, the allies must take their time to ensure that Afghanistan is secure, self-reliant and on the path toward stability before they leave, he said.
"I urge us all to keep this in mind: Resist the urge to do what is politically expedient and have the courage of patience."