A top NATO commander in Afghanistan said on Monday there should be no rush to withdraw alliance forces in 2011 because once they are gone, it would be much harder to send them back if necessary.
Lieutenant-General Nick Parker, second-in-command of the International Security Assistance Force behind U.S. General David Petraeus, also said the significance of a July 2011 U.S. withdrawal date had been overemphasised.
"What we must not do is pull back and go blind, because it then becomes extremely difficult to re-intervene, if you need to," Parker told reporters in London through a satellite link from Afghanistan.
"What we've got to do is to thin back and then reinvest some of that dividend into other areas so there is a sense of continuing commitment. It's not a sort of rush for the exit," he added.
Almost 150,000 foreign troops, mostly American, are fighting a now nine-year NATO-led war against Taliban insurgents. This year has been the deadliest for foreign forces, and pressure in participating countries has mounted for troops to be withdrawn.
"It is entirely reasonable for there to be some drawdown of some sort, although I suggest that all the indicators I've heard is that this is not as significant as some people choose to make it out to be," Parker said.
"I suspect ... some domestic politics in certain countries where it's being overstated," he later added.
Parker said he had no knowledge of the scale of a possible U.S. drawdown next year, but said media reports had cited about 2,000, a figure he said was "not a subject of strategic significance."
For British troops, Parker said he was confident that by July, more Afghan forces would be sufficiently capable to take over on the front line and for more British troops to act as a "reactive" enabling force or be redeployed where needed.
He declined to comment on the prospect of withdrawal.
"Is this July 2011 deadline an over-optimistic target to have capable Afghan forces taking over the front line from the coalition? This is a personal assessment; I don't think it is," he added.
Parker told reporters last month that international forces in Afghanistan had at times overstated the progress being made this year.
Further watering down the July date, Parker said decisions on troop numbers were driven by conditions on the ground, not by a timeline, and that foreign forces would not completely disengage after any pullback in case they had to re-intervene.
At 9,500 troops, British forces make up the second largest contingent of foreign troops in Afghanistan, and Britain aims to withdraw the bulk of its combat troops by 2015. The war has grown unpopular in both Britain and the United States.
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