NATO weighs Afghan drawdown after bin Laden death

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NATO allies weighed Thursday the effect of Osama bin Laden's death on the war in Afghanistan as defence ministers awaited a key US decision on the scope and pace of a troop drawdown next month.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen vowed that the alliance would not rush out of the conflict as it starts handing command of the battlefield to Afghan forces in weeks, with the aim of ending the foreign combat role in three years.

"Transition is based on conditions, not calendars, but I'm confident that we can complete our security handover to the Afghans by the end of 2014," Rasmussen said.

"That does not mean we are heading for the exit. Our commitment to Afghanistan will endure well beyond that through our long-term partnership," he said at the start of talks between NATO's 28 members and 20 partners in the war.

As US President Barack Obama weighs his options, German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere voiced concerns about the potential impact of the US drawdown, set to start in July, on the transition if it is too deep.

"We are a little concerned that if it's too much then the strategy cannot be implemented as agreed. We hope for a moderate step by the American president," he told reporters.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who met with his counterparts in Brussels one last time before retiring at the end of the month, has sparred with White House aides pushing for a faster reduction of the 100,000 US troops, who are reinforced by 30,000 other foreign forces.

The NATO ministers were also due to hear from General David Petraeus, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, who is due to give his recommendation to Obama within days.

After a four-day farewell trip joining US forces in Afghanistan, Gates said Tuesday that American and NATO-led forces were on the verge of securing a "decisive blow" against the Taliban insurgency.

His remarks reflected the view of commanders that a troop surge in the nearly 10-year-old war has begun to bear fruit and that a withdrawal should proceed at a cautious pace.

Some White House officials believe that bin Laden's death last month and a ballooning budget deficit demand a steep reduction in the US military presence in Afghanistan.

The US-led war in Afghanistan was triggered by the Taliban's failure to hand over bin Laden in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, but has become unpopular in Europe.

Rasmussen insists that the killing of bin Laden by US special forces in Pakistan will not alter the alliance's commitment to finishing the job in Afghanistan.

"Obviously during that process, or transition, you will see a gradual change of role that our troops play in Afghanistan from combat into support," Rasmussen said on Monday.

"And you may also see some withdrawals. But such reductions in the troop level will take place in an organised and coordinated manner," he said.

The transition is due to begin in seven areas of Afghanistan in weeks but the exact date when it will start remains unclear.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced last month that Britain would pull out 450 troops by the end of 2011, defying defence chiefs who wanted a smaller reduction. Britain has 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, the most after the United States.

The Netherlands withdrew its combat troops last year and decided to send police trainers this year. Canada plans to switch to a training mission this year while Poland has said it wants to do the same in 2012.

Lawmakers in Germany, whose contingent of 5,000 troops is the third largest, agreed in January to extend the mission by 12 months but with a clause calling for them to begin coming home at the end of the year, if conditions permit.

© 2011 AFP

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