Gates: No US "rush to the exits" in Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates gestures while speaking during a media conference after a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, June 9, 2011. NATO defense ministers shift their focus from Libya to Afghanistan during talks on Thursday.
AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

BRUSSELS - The United States won't "rush to the exits" from Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday, attempting to ease concerns after Germany warned that pulling too many Americans out of the 10-year war could risk NATO's strategy.

President Barack Obama is expected to announce soon how many troops he will cut from the 100,000-strong U.S. force in Afghanistan in July, leading to fears that other NATO allies involved in the fight against Taliban insurgents may follow suit.

Gates sought to reassure allies at a meeting of defense ministers at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels, where he arrived this week from a 12th and final tour of Afghanistan before he retires at the end of the month.

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"Even as the United States begins to draw down next month, I assured my fellow ministers that there will be no rush to the exits on our part and we expect the same from our allies," Gates told reporters.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was confident the U.S. troop withdrawals will not affect security in the war-torn country.

"I know that the American administration will take decisions based on the security situation on the ground," he said.

Gates agreed, but added that, "we have to realize there has been improvement in the situation on the ground."

However, a recent CBS News poll revealed that 64 percent of a representative sample of Americans said they want to see the the number of troops in Afghanistan decreased - an all-time for CBS News polling.

Poll: Most want troops in Afghanistan reduced

Germany, which has about 4,800 troops in Afghanistan, urged Washington not to pull too many of its forces out. The country understands the U.S. move, but "we have some concerns that if it is too much, then the (Afghanistan) strategy cannot be implemented as agreed. We hope for a moderate step by the American president," Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, briefed the ministers on progress in the war at a closed-door meeting. He will deliver options in the coming days to Obama for troop reductions.

Gates said he was confident that the alliance will still have the capacity to keep up the fight against the Taliban after the U.S. cuts.

"I see no changes likely in the next six months or so that are going to relieve the pressure on the Taliban," he said.

Despite the looming U.S. troop reduction, Rasmussen told the meeting the alliance is on track to hand over responsibility for security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.

And he told Taliban insurgents to renounce violence and cut links with terror networks.

"The successful operation against Osama bin Laden sent a clear message — extremism has no future," Rasmussen told defense ministers. "It is time for the Taliban to make a choice: Cut links with al Qaeda and terror networks, renounce violence and respect the democratic Afghan constitution."

Gates said military commanders he met on his recent Afghanistan tour had not yet seen any flow-on effect from bin Laden's death.

But he said breaking the close personal link between al Qaeda's late leader and the Taliban's Afghan chief Mullah Omar could have an impact.

"I think that in terms of the political prospect, the potential of the killing of bin Laden to be a game changer is there," he said.

On Wednesday, Gates challenged five key military allies to take on a greater share of the NATO-led air campaign against Moammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya, but none of the countries pledged to do more.

The pressure on Germany, Poland, Spain, Turkey and Netherlands came as the alliance continued with intensified airstrikes on Libya's capital, Tripoli. Seven thunderous strikes shook the city again Thursday morning.

Gates said Thursday he made the call, "so the burdens are more evenly shared and thus more easily sustained over time."

But he remained confident NATO can keep up its fight against Gadhafi's forces.

"Those that are bearing the brunt of the strike burden are increasingly pressed," he said "But I think they will be able to sustain this, I think there will be additional help."

Canadian Defense Minister Peter Gordon MacKay announced his country's Parliament will vote next week on a proposal to continue Canada's contribution to the Libya mission in line with NATO's three-month extension. Canada has contributed fighter jets, maritime surveillance planes and a frigate to the mission.

NATO also announced it is cutting about 4,200 posts in a streamlining of its command structure that involves closing four of its 11 command bases.

Fogh Rasmussen said the reforms would "make NATO more affordable, offering better value for our allies' money."