Brussels—Although Afghanistan will be a major topic of discussion through Thursday at NATO’s defense ministerial meetings here, the alliance members are more likely to focus on the December 2014 deadline for turning over combat responsibility fully to the Afghans than on initial withdrawal numbers, said sources inside NATO. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during his visit to Afghanistan this week that a speedy withdrawal could be detrimental to US and coalition efforts to transition power back to the Afghan people. “I think we shouldn’t let up on the gas too much, at least not in the next few months,” Gates told US troops there Monday. NATO sources also emphasized the “gradual nature” of the transition Tuesday, saying it’s unlikely the alliance would pull out any troops in July. Instead, they said it’s much more likely ISAF forces would fade into the background, but remain close enough to step in if necessary, or they would simply rotate to other areas in Afghanistan.
The U.S. supports “a stronger and more capable” European defense, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said during an Oct. 22 press conference in Brussels—but that defense should not duplicate the functions and capabilities of the NATO alliance.