LONDON President Barack Obama's plan to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July would jeopardize hard-won security gains there, a security thinktank said on Wednesday.
The International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), which regularly conducts research in Afghanistan, recommended current force levels be maintained until July 2012.
"The directive to begin drawing down U.S. forces in July 2011 ... is based on domestic politics and pressure for a withdrawal rather than a realistic assessment of on-the-ground dynamics in southern Afghanistan," said ICOS President Norine MacDonald.
"A drawdown just when fighting is likely to be at its most intense in the summer months would jeopardize the recent hard-earned progress," she said in a statement, presenting a new ICOS report.
Obama decided in late 2009 to pour an extra 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, bringing U.S. forces there to around 100,000, in an effort to defeat a resurgent Taliban.
Obama said in December that U.S.-led forces were scoring gains against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan but warned they were fragile and reversible.
He said the United States was on course to meet his pledge to begin withdrawing troops by mid-2011 and transition to full Afghan security control by 2014.
Many NATO leaders are under pressure from war-weary voters to bring troops home from Afghanistan, which last year saw its worst violence since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
NO TIME TO BUILD LOYALTY
MacDonald said the current military withdrawal calendar put pressure on the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to produce quick results in training Afghan forces, increasing the risk of choosing "quantity over quality."
"It also does not allow sufficient time to build the political loyalty of these forces, or provide assurances that these troops will be both able and willing to stand up to Taliban attacks or intimidation," she said.
The ICOS report focused on the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where U.S., NATO and Afghan forces are involved in heavy fighting against Taliban insurgents.
It found that the U.S. troop surge in southern Afghanistan had improved security significantly.
Major gains had been made in clearing districts previously held by the Taliban, and the Afghan security forces were growing in competence and number, although security challenges remained serious, ICOS said.
The report said there were widespread fears about Afghan security forces' complicity with the insurgents.
As ISAF cleared insurgent strongholds in the south, this could push the Taliban to switch its focus north of Kandahar, toward Kabul or through further expansion in the northern provinces, it said.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)