Afghan withdrawal timeline "irrational": Taliban

KABUL Sun Nov 21, 2010 9:16am EST

KABUL (Reuters) - The Afghan Taliban described NATO's plan to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014 as "irrational," reiterating on Sunday its demand for all foreign troops to leave immediately or risk more bloodshed.

In a five-point statement released in response to a NATO summit that wrapped up in Lisbon on Saturday, the Taliban said delaying the withdrawal of foreign troops would only lead to more "tragic events and battles."

U.S. President Barack Obama, who is due to review his Afghanistan war strategy next month, has already committed to a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops from July 2011, his counterpart Hamid Karzai saying he wants Afghans in control by 2014.

That target was agreed by NATO leaders in Lisbon on Saturday, although some U.S. and NATO officials have said a spike in violence and problems in building up a capable Afghan army and police force to take over could make it hard to meet the goal.

Mark Sedwill, the top NATO civilian representative in Kabul, said last week the transition could spill over into 2015 in some of the most violent areas of Afghanistan.

Obama said on Saturday his aim was to halt major combat operations by the end of 2014 but others were cautious.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said no security vacuum would be left behind and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the transition would be shaped by security rather than timetables.

The Taliban dismissed all such talk as "irrational."

"Because until then, various untoward and tragic events and battles will take place as a result of this meaningless, imposed and unwinnable war. They should not postpone withdrawal of their forces even be it for one day," it said in a statement.

Brigadier General Josef Blotz, a senior spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the transition was not "calendar-driven but conditions-based," with the end of 2014 set as the target date.

Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were overthrown by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001, with record casualties on all sides of the conflict despite the presence of about 150,000 foreign troops.

Major U.S. and NATO-led operations have started in the past 18 months across Taliban strongholds in the south, with commanders saying they have halted the Islamist group's momentum but also warning that hard fighting still lay ahead.

The militants, meanwhile, have spread the insurgency out of the south and east near the Pakistan border into once peaceful areas in the north and west.

WIHDRAWAL TIMELINE "QUALIFIED"

Echoing Rasmussen and Ban, Pakistan on Sunday backed the NATO timeline but cautioned against any withdrawal that does not take into account security conditions on the ground.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi described the withdrawal timeline as "qualified.

"... the qualification is that they begin the withdrawal in line with ground realities and the ability of the Afghan authorities to resume the responsibility of their security," Qureshi told Reuters by telephone from Indonesia.

Pakistan is crucial for U.S.-led efforts to stabilize Afghanistan because its border areas are sanctuaries, and training grounds, for al Qaeda and the Taliban. Western allies have been pressing Pakistan to take tougher action there.

A rise in violence in Afghanistan after any pull-out, or a collapse into chaos, is a major concern for Pakistan, which itself is fighting a growing insurgency by homegrown militants.

The war, started to oust the Taliban for sheltering al Qaeda after the September 11, 2001 attacks, is widely seen as having gone badly for the United States and NATO, with about 2,225 troops killed so far. Obama has faced criticism that setting a withdrawal timetable would embolden the Taliban.

Karzai's government is also seen as crippled by endemic corruption and too weak to stand on its own feet when foreign forces leave. Corruption has hindered the building of state institutions, including the Afghan security forces.

The imminent transition process has also thrown the spotlight onto Karzai's wider peace plan, which includes negotiations with the Taliban. Washington and other NATO capitals have gradually accepted that talks with insurgents would be needed.

The Taliban, however, have also rejected any suggestion of talks until all foreign troops have left.

Some NATO countries are planning to start handing over security responsibility according to a timeline like Obama's. Others, like Canada, will change from combat to training roles while the Netherlands has already withdrawn its troops.

(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider and Chris Allbritton in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Myra MacDonald)