BRUSSELS - 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.
Already this year insider attacks, in which Afghan forces or insurgents dressed like them, have killed or injured 130 allied forces.
Officials here also formally announced that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. John Allen, will be the next NATO supreme allied commander. Allen is slated to take over in the spring, and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the assistant Marine commandant, would take the top Afghanistan job. The changes must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
During the meeting, Allen and Panetta assured the ministers that commanders have come up ways to reduce the insider attacks.
The tactics to reduce the attacks have largely been in place for some time. They include increased vetting of Afghan recruits, enhanced training and cultural awareness, greater use of so-called guardian angel troops who stand guard to protect their comrades, and a new system that requires partnered operations with small units to be approved by top commanders.
Rasmussen seemed to reject any idea that there will be any acceleration in the drawdown, despite concerns about the insider attacks.
"This is not about speeding up," said Rasmussen, adding that the coalition will execute a careful, deliberate and coordinated process for the transfer of security to the Afghans by the time the NATO combat mission ends in 2014. "This is not a rush for the exit."
At that time, NATO will change to a training and advisory mission. NATO ministers are expected to endorse a broad framework for that transition during their meeting here.
That mission is also likely to include continued counterterrorism efforts by the U.S. There have been suggestions that a force of as many as 20,000 troops could remain in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, but no decisions have been made. Allen is expected to provide some recommendations before the end of the year on the pace and number of U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan beginning in 2013.
Dunford has been assistant commandant since October 2010. Allen took over the Afghanistan job in July 2011, after serving as the acting commander of U.S. Central Command for a short time.