LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's senior commander in Afghanistan has said hasty withdrawals of foreign soldiers could undermine recent successes there against the insurgency, a newspaper said on Tuesday.
"The coalition has had a good winter," Lieutenant-General James Bucknall told The Daily Telegraph. "We have got to hold on to what we have gained and hold that over this fighting season."
"What we are doing is reaping the benefits of having the resources in place to match the strategy we have always had," Bucknall, who also is deputy head of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said.
The force needed to remain broadly at its current strength for the next two "fighting seasons," meaning troops would not be withdrawn before the autumn of 2012, he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to begin a gradual withdrawal of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July as Washington takes steps to end a costly, unpopular war nearly a decade after the Taliban government was toppled.
But the United States has warned European nations against a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan that could threaten the headway made in turning back a tenacious Taliban insurgency.
Britain plans to withdraw around 400 troops from Afghanistan in the next nine months, trimming its force to 9,500.
Bucknall said the planned reduction could be achieved by withdrawing support staff, but frontline combat force levels should remain unchanged.
Taliban insurgents have promised a new wave of violence as part of the annual spring "fighting season" in Afghanistan, testing the extent to which Obama's decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan last year had weakened the insurgency.
Asked to comment on Bucknall's remarks, a spokeswoman for Britain's Ministry of Defense said British forces were in "the most difficult part of Afghanistan and what we cannot do is to see a reduction in our combat troops until we are sure that we've got sufficient and lasting security."
(Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Michael Roddy)