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NATO vows to stay in Afghanistan despite bin Laden death

World leaders hailed bin Laden’s killing Sunday by US commandos inside Pakistan as a victory against Al-Qaeda, but they also warned that the battle against terrorism was far from over.

“As terrorism continues to pose a direct threat to our security and international stability, international cooperation remains key and NATO is at the heart of that cooperation,” said NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

“NATO allies and partners will continue their mission to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for extremism, but develops in peace and security,” he said.

Some 140,000 NATO-led troops are in Afghanistan amid growing fatigue in Europe over the war, launched by the United States to hunt down Al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001.

NATO has decided to begin handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces this year, with the aim of ending the combat mission by 2014, although the alliance insists that it will stand by Kabul’s side for the long haul.

Francois Heisbourg, special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said calls in Europe for troop withdrawals will only grow after bin Laden’s death.

“If we are looking for an exit door, it is now or never,” Heisbourg said.

“Politically and strategically, the intervention in Afghanistan was at the start about bin Laden. With him gone, it becomes harder to justify this military presence, regardless of the situation on the ground,” he said.

NATO officials insisted that the war is about bringing stability to Afghanistan, not just about Al-Qaeda.

“NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is not linked to one enemy. It is linked to stability and bin Laden was not the only obstacle,” said an alliance official. “His death will not suddenly resolve everything.”

A NATO military official acknowledged that there could be some “temptations” to pull troops out, but that European nations still face the threat of extremists entering their countries.

Britain, the second-largest contributor to the mission after the United States with 9,500 troops, warned that Al-Qaeda was still “in business” and that its chief’s death would not mean an end to the campaign.

“The work in Afghanistan will continue to be phenomenally difficult and must go on. So it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that suddenly we have solved a mass of the world’s problems,” said Foreign Secretary William Hague.

NATO allies, however, are keeping an eye on the exit sign in Afghanistan.

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, the third-largest contingent with 5,000 troops, 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.

With 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan, US President Barack Obama hopes conditions allow him to begin drawing down troops in July, while British Prime Minister David Cameron says London may also begin a withdrawal this year.

Constanze Stelzenmueller, an expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said bin Laden’s death will not have an impact on the debate over troop withdrawals since Al-Qaeda was no longer a central player there.

“Afghanistan is now about stabilising the country so that it doesn’t become another failed state,” she said. “There is by now a pretty general interest in Afghanistan not imploding and I think that’s the case that ought to be made to the larger public.”

AFP/ Laurent Thomet/ Expatica