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Back in June, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that when the Obama administration begins pulling troops from Afghanistan, the U.S. will resist a rush to the exists, “and we expect the same from our allies.” Gates said it was critically important that a plan for winding down NATO’s combat role by the end of 2014 did not squander gains made against the Taliban that were won at great cost in lives and money.

“The more U.S. forces draw down, the more it gives the green light for our international partners to also head for the exits,” said Jeffrey Dressler, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “There is a cyclical effect here that is hard to temper once it gets going.”

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings Jr. said the cutbacks that have been announced will not affect the coalition’s ability to fight the insurgency.

“We are getting more Afghans into the field and we are transferring more responsibility to them in many areas,” Cummings said, adding that many leaders of the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Haqqani militant networks have been captured or killed.

Afghan security forces started taking the lead in seven areas in July. They soon will assume responsibility for many more regions as part of a gradual process that will put Afghans in charge of security across the nation by the end of 2014.

Some countries are lobbying to start transition as soon as possible in areas where they have their troops deployed — so they can go home, said a senior NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss transition. The official insisted that those desires were not driving decisions on where Afghan troops are taking the lead. But the official said that because they want to leave, a number of troop-contributing nations faced with declining public support at home have started working harder to get their areas ready to hand off to Afghan forces.

“The big question (after 2014) is if the Afghan security forces can take on an externally based insurgency with support from the Pakistani security establishment and all that entails,” Dressler said. “I think they will have a real challenge on their hands if the U.S. and NATO countries do not address Pakistani sponsorship of these groups.”

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Lekic reported from Brussels. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Helmand contributed to this report.