By Missy Ryan and David Brunnstrom
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The United States warned European nations Friday against a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan that could threaten the headway made in turning back a tenacious Taliban insurgency.
"Frankly, there is too much talk about leaving and not enough talk about getting the job done right," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a ministerial meeting.
Defense ministers from the nearly 50 nations with troops in Afghanistan endorsed a plan to shift security leadership gradually from foreign troops to Afghan forces, a key step in the plan to wind down the West's military role.
The United States, the dominant foreign force in Afghanistan with close to 100,000 soldiers, is preparing to begin withdrawing some troops this year but is concerned that other countries are in too much of a hurry.
"Let me be clear: uncoordinated national drawdowns would risk the gains made to date," Gates said. "Considerations about any drawdown of forces must be driven by security conditions ... not by mathematical calculation shaped by political concerns.
"Unfortunately, some of the recent rhetoric coming from capitals on this continent is calling into question ... resolve."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said troop-contributing nations had agreed that decisions on force levels would take into account the overall requirements of the mission, and that combat troops could be redeployed to other areas of Afghanistan as well as into training.
"I ask the allies and partners to show patience and determination in order to guarantee durable and irreversible progress," he said.
NATO SAYS WILL NOT BE DISTRACTED
Rasmussen told a news conference that NATO allies had agreed that concerns about the unrest in North Africa and the Middle East should not affect the Afghan mission.
"We have the right strategy, we have the right resources to accomplish our mission in Afghanistan. We are making progress and we will stay the course and no event will make us deviate from the strategy we have prepared," he said.
U.S. commanders say they have weakened the Taliban in its southern heartland, but Gates said there would likely be "harder and heavier fighting" in 2011.
He said the United States was "well-positioned" to begin a staged withdrawal from July, a first step toward ending a long and expensive war that U.S. lawmakers regard as a budget concern. Gates has not said how many U.S. troops will be withdrawn, but it is expected to be a modest number.
As the 9/11 attacks that triggered the toppling of the Taliban recede into history, and the human and financial toll of the war grows, support has waned for a bloody, distant campaign that has killed more than 2,000 foreign soldiers.
Britain, with the second-largest troop force in Afghanistan, says it hopes to cut troop numbers this year if conditions allow. It wants all its combat troops out by 2015.
Germany, whose soldiers face mounting insecurity in northern Afghanistan, also wants to start withdrawing this year, as does France. The Netherlands has already withdrawn its combat troops.
Western plans to withdraw smoothly from Afghanistan will hang on the ability of Afghan troops to take over the fight against the Taliban, which has moved into some previously quiet areas of the country, by the end of 2014 as planned.
But local forces, while they are better trained and better equipped than they were, continue to struggle with illiteracy, high dropout rates and occasional insurgent infiltration.
(Editing by Robert Woodward)