BRUSSELS (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sought to reassure NATO allies on Wednesday effective action was being taken to stop “insider” attacks on their soldiers that have undermined trust between coalition and Afghan forces.
Panetta also told a meeting of alliance defense ministers the 11-year-old Afghan war had “reached a critical moment” after the pullout of 33,000 U.S. “surge” troops brought in two years ago to help counter a strengthening Taliban insurgency.
He said the coalition’s response to attacks by Taliban insurgents disguised as Afghan policemen or soldiers and its efforts to improve its partnership with Afghan security forces would be critical to the success of the war with the Taliban.
Panetta and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the gathering in Brussels there was no move to speed up the planned withdrawal of international forces.
“The handover to Afghan security responsibility is unfolding as planned. And as transition takes hold, you will see some of our forces redeploying or drawing down as part of the strategy we have all agreed. This is not a rush for the exit, but the logical result of transition,” Rasmussen said.
At least 52 members of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force have been killed this year by Afghans wearing police or army uniforms, eroding confidence between the sides.
“Whatever motivates these attacks, the enemy intends to use them to undermine mutual trust and cohesion, driving a wedge between us and our Afghan partners,” Panetta said.
“We can only deny the enemy its objective by countering these attacks with all of our strength.”
He outlined steps the coalition and Afghan officials are taking to counter the attacks. They included enhanced training, better cultural awareness, continual review of partnering arrangements and expanded vetting of forces.
Panetta also announced changes in the top military ranks in Afghanistan and Europe.
General Joseph Dunford, assistant commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, has been chosen to lead U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, Panetta said.
The current head of the International Security Assistance Force, Marine Corps General John Allen, will become the head of U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, taking over from Admiral James Stavridis, Panetta said.
Both positions require U.S. Senate confirmation and the changes are expected to take place early next year. Panetta said President Barack Obama had decided to nominate the two.
The defense ministers gave military experts the go-ahead on Wednesday to start detailed planning for the NATO-led training and advisory mission that will start after NATO ends combat operations in Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
AFGHAN WAR AT “CRITICAL MOMENT”
Panetta said a decision to send 33,000 extra U.S. troops into Afghanistan nearly two years ago had made a “decisive difference,” sharply reducing casualties and forcing Taliban insurgents farther away from population centers.
The United States completed the withdrawal of the so-called “surge” forces in September, leaving 68,000 U.S. troops plus their coalition partners to carry on the mission. The coalition has trained some 350,000 Afghan forces and plans to hand over full security control to Kabul by the end of 2014.
With the pullout of surge forces, “we’ve reached a critical moment for this alliance and for this war,” Panetta said.
To build the skill and capacity of the Afghan army and police, the coalition must “ensure they have the embedded trainers and mentors needed to assist them as they take security lead”.
He said the coalition faced a shortfall of 58 security assistance teams to advise the forces and urged the NATO allies to help fill the gap.
Panetta said the size and composition of the NATO force that would remain in Afghanistan after 2014 had not been decided but its presence should be “steadfast and effective”.
British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said on Tuesday evening he expected Britain would be able to make a “significant reduction” in its troop levels in Afghanistan in 2013.
Any enduring British presence after 2014 would be modest and targeted on “specific niche capabilities”, he said.
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft and Sebastian Moffett; editing by Andrew Roche