BRUSSELS — NATO allies agreed Friday new rules under which they can withdraw their troops from Afghanistan as US Defence Secretary Robert Gates slammed "too much talk about leaving."
Alliance Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced the deal looking ahead to a 2014 deadline to pass control to Afghan security forces after Gates warned that early withdrawal would jeopardise the war effort just as the Taliban has lost the upper hand.
"Frankly, there is too much talk about leaving and not enough talk about getting the job done right. Too much discussion of exit and not enough discussion about the fight," Gates said according to a text of his speech.
"Too much concern about when and how many troops might redeploy, and not enough about what needs to be done before they leave," he said.
"Ministers discussed and agreed principles by which we will (manage) transition," Rasmussen said after talks among the 28 NATO countries and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) partners, not all of whom contribute soldiers.
He said that while the gradual "thinning out" of ISAF forces in particular provinces would accelerate, "redeployment and reinvestment ... remains a NATO responsibility."
Rasmussen said there had to be "coherence" so that "national decisions take into account overall force requirements."
That would mean "relocation" for some troops on active duty, although forces would remain in the line of fire "not a day longer" than needed, and "reconfiguration" for others, whereby "combat forces could be moved into training."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said earlier this week that "five to six places" would be handed over initially.
"The final decision will be made by President Karzai," Rasmussen said of the formal announcement due on March 21, the first day of the Afgahn New Year.
"I have seen a lot of speculation in the media but we fully respect the procedure laid out," Rasmussen added of areas that could include three cities -- Lashkar Gah, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif -- and two provinces, Bamiyan and Panshir, plus the capital region of Kabul minus Surobi.
According to a NATO European military official, early withdrawal plans by Canada and the Netherlands gave "a very poor signal" and Germany has already made known it is likely to follow next year.
There are currently around 140,000 international troops in Afghanistan, around two-thirds of them from the United States.
Washington plans to start withdrawing some of its troops in July at the same time as Afghan forces begin to take over security.
Out of the roughly 140,000 troops in the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, 97,000 are American, with the war costing the United States $10 billion a month.
"America is willing to shoulder the lion's share of the burden but we cannot do it alone," Gates said in his speech.
He acknowledged that the more than 40 countries in the coalition fighting the Taliban had suffered higher casualties in 2010 than in any other year since the war began in 2001.
"These are the tragic costs of success but we bear them because it is in our shared security interests to do so.
"Let me be clear -- uncoordinated national drawdowns would risk the gains made to date," Gates insisted, saying forces had "dealt a heavy blow to the Taliban insurgency" in the past year and pushed the insurgents "out of vital areas in the south and east."
Afghan national security force numbers have built up to current levels of 140,000 soldiers and 100,000 police, trained and armed by the NATO allies.