No risks to be taken in US troop drawdown from Afghanistan: Gates

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The gradual withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan set to begin next month will be done responsibly and will not expose other coalition and Afghan forces to undue risks, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on Sunday.
US General David Petraeus, commander of the 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, will make recommendations to US President Barack Obama about how many should be withdrawn, following Obama’s pledge last year to start bringing US combat troops home. The commitment followed Obama’s December 2009 decision to send 30,000 extra US troops in a bid to arrest a growing Taliban-led insurgency.
Fighting increased dramatically, particularly in the Taliban heartland in the south, since the last of those extra troops arrived last summer. US commanders say significant gains have been made in halting the Taliban’s momentum in the south since then, but violence has flared elsewhere in Afghanistan, particularly in the east and with complex attacks in major cities.
Pentagon and White House officials are tight-lipped about the size of the initial withdrawal. Obama is expected to announce his decision sometime in mid-July. Gates said great strides had been made in training enough Afghan police and soldiers adequately to allow for the gradual withdrawal that will end with all foreign combat troops leaving by the end of 2014, according to an agreement reached at a NATO summit last December.
“And so the question then becomes, what can you take out and what is the risk associated with that,” Gates said at a forward operating base in southern Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban. “And I think General Petraeus will come in with a range of options. And I have every confidence that the decision that’s made will be a responsible one,” he told troops at the base just outside Kandahar city.
At the start of this year, with violence raging across Afghanistan after nearly a decade of war, an initial pullout of around 5,000 troops had been anticipated.