BRUSSELS (AP) — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday the NATO coalition has turned an important corner in Afghanistan, and has come too far and spilled too much blood to let insider attacks or anything else undermine the mission there.
While he and other ministers refused to provide details of the expected withdrawal of troops in the coming two years, he said that from mid-2013 onward the U.S. and its allies will operate from fewer bases and the flow of military supplies and material out of Afghanistan will begin to grow.
Panetta also used his time during the closed session of the NATO conference here Wednesday to urge the other defense ministers to help fill the shortfall of military training teams in Afghanistan. The teams, he said, are critical to building the capabilities of the Afghan forces so they can take control of their country's security by the end of 2014.
Panetta asked that NATO allies provide the roughly 60 teams that are needed — which would bring the total to 465 — and give those commitments by later next month. It has been a persistent plea from the U.S. for the last three years, as NATO worked to increase the Afghan security forces to about 352,000.
"The U.S. has filled a disproportionate number of these teams in recent years, and I ask for your help to fill the gap," Panetta said, calling this a "critical moment" in the war.
He later told reporters that ministers responded positively. He said they told him they would try to provide the teams. But he also acknowledged that, as in the past, the U.S. would continue to provide additional teams as well.
The overriding theme at the conference, repeated by Panetta and others, was that NATO nations went into Afghanistan together and will go out together, and violence and challenges there have triggered no decline in commitment to the fight.
"Whatever tactics the enemy throws at us ...we will not allow those tactics to divide us from our Afghan partners, and we will not allow those tactics to divert us from the mission we are dedicated to," Panetta told reporters. "We've come too far, we've fought too many battles, we have spilled too much blood not to finish the job."
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen echoed those sentiments, saying that no one will be able to drive a wedge between the Afghan and coalition forces. "The insider attacks will not change our strategy," he said.
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