Any decision to reduce international troop levels in Afghanistan should be based on security conditions on the ground, Britain's defense secretary said, ahead of a U.S. decision about how many of its soldiers to pull out and at what pace.
Liam Fox said he was not worried that a political debate raging in the United States would influence President Barack Obama's decision on the troop withdrawal starting next month. There has been fresh congressional pressure on Obama to withdraw a significant number of U.S. troops.
On a brief visit to Afghanistan, Fox said he was eagerly waiting to hear Obama's announcement on the number of troops the United State would draw down. He said the American administration wanted a positive result from its 10-year campaign in the Afghan conflict. He said Britain would not withdraw combat troops; rather, mostly support personnel.
"I have no doubt about the American commitment to Afghanistan," Fox told a news conference in Kabul. He said he was encouraged by recent statements made by Obama and outgoing Secretary of Defense Secretary Robert Gates "about how America was going to make its long term plans on the basis of the sovereignty of the government of Afghanistan and the security situation on the ground."
"I think both President Obama and the military leadership have made it very clear that having invested so much in Afghanistan, America wants to see a successful outcome," Fox said, standing next to the defense ministers of Denmark and Estonia _ who also have troops in Afghanistan.
He said it was expected that the United States would begin withdrawing some of the 30,000 troops that were part of a surge of forces last summer, sent to help push insurgents back from territories they controlled in the southern parts of the country.
"It was always going to be the case that this would not be a permanent state of affairs," Fox said of the surge.
British Prime Minister David Cameron recently said that Britain will pull out 450 troops from Afghanistan in the next year.
"They will be noncombat troops," Fox said.
The military has sought to consolidate gains made over the winter to expand security in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and allow the Afghan government to better establish itself in those areas. To do that, the U.S.-led coalition would need to retain a significant force in those areas.
Obama will decide how many of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to withdraw in the initial round of troop reductions. International forces are expected to end combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Several U.S. lawmakers have been clamoring for significant cuts, citing the killing of Osama bin Laden as evidence that the mission has been fulfilled. Others have argued the U.S. should retain a smaller number of more specialized troops that carry out counterterrorism operations, instead of the far costlier counterinsurgency effort that includes development and governance.
"I have been very impressed recently by the balance that we are beginning to achieve between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism," Fox said. "I think that in some places you will hear a very false debate between its either one thing, or the other. Unless you get them both in correct balance it becomes very difficult."
Counterterrorism operations target insurgent commanders as part of a two-pronged effort to force the Taliban leadership to the negotiating table, and reintegrate the rank-and-file back into Afghan society.
The operations, mostly in the form of night raids carried out by Afghan and coalition special forces, have infuriated Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who claims they are angering and alienating the Afghan population.
"I know there will be some concern about night raids, but we have to continue to remove those who will be irreconcilable when it comes to the constitutional government of Afghanistan and its right to apply its own sovereignty to its own nation," Fox said.
The first phase of transition will start in the provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah, Herat in the west, Mazer-e-Sharif in the north and Mehterlam in the east. In addition, Afghan police and soldiers will take charge in all of Bamiyan and Panjshir provinces, which have seen little to no fighting, and all of Kabul province except for the restive Surobi district. Afghan security forces have assumed responsibility for security in the greater Kabul area, home to about 5 million people _ about one-fifth to one-quarter of the nation's population.
NATO forces in transition areas will thin out, take on support roles including training and mentoring, be redeployed to other areas or sent home.
At the same time, violence persists around Afghanistan.
NATO announced that one of its service members was killed in an insurgent attack in the south. It did not provide further details.
A roadside bomb that struck a civilian farm tractor killed four people in southern Afghanistan, and Kandahar provincial police chief Gen. Abdul Raziq said Afghan army and police officers killed 16 fighters and captured 17 alive. They were carrying bombs and assault rifles.