WASHINGTON — Britain warned Wednesday against a "premature" withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan as the U.S.-led international force suffered its highest monthly death toll of the nearly nine-year-old war.
The 93,000-strong U.S. contingent is the largest in the International Security Assistance Force, followed by Britain's approximately 10,000 soldiers.
June saw the highest death toll for coalition forces since the 2001 U.S.-led intervention began, with at least 102 troops killed, according to iCasualties.org, a website that tracks casualty tolls in Afghanistan and Iraq. The dead include the 300th British soldier to die in the Afghan war. At least 60 U.S. troops died in June.
"To leave before the job is finished would leave us less safe and less secure," Britain's new defense secretary, Liam Fox, said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy institute. "Our resolve would be called into question, our cohesion weakened and the (NATO) alliance undermined."
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He appeared to be referring to the July 2011 timeline that President Barack Obama set for beginning a U.S. troop pullout. Counterinsurgency experts and Republican lawmakers have criticized the time frame as insufficient to build capable Afghan security forces and stable, competent local and national governments.
The Senate on Wednesday unanimously confirmed Army Gen. David Petraeus, who's been credited with helping to prevent Iraq from plunging into all-out sectarian war, as the new commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. He's scheduled to arrive in Kabul on Friday.
Obama tapped Petraeus, the architect of the current U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, to replace Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Obama accepted McChrystal's resignation last week after the general and his staff made intemperate remarks to a magazine reporter about senior administration officials.
In his speech Wednesday, Fox warned that withdrawing international forces "prematurely" would allow al Qaida to return to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary from which to attack, and could lead to new conflict among the country's ethnic groups.
The instability could infect neighboring nuclear-armed Pakistan "with potentially unthinkable regional, and possibly nuclear, consequences," Fox continued, referring to the possibility of extremists obtaining a nuclear warhead.
With the Taliban-led insurgency expanding and Afghan the war becoming bloodier and increasingly unpopular along their publics, the U.S. and British governments and other nations that are contributing to the U.S.-led military coalition are under growing pressure to pull out of the country.
Fox also laid out a long-term strategic goal that seemed to go beyond stated U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
The goal, he said, is to reverse "the momentum of the Taliban-led insurgency" and reduce the threat "to a level that allows the Afghan government to manage it themselves."
Fox said, however, that the allies also must create "a stable and capable enough system of security and governance so the Afghan government can provide internal security on an enduring basis."
His remarks contrasted with Obama's narrower goal of defeating, dismantling and disrupting al Qaida and building capable Afghan security forces.
London has been pushing the United States for months to begin formulating a political strategy for forging a negotiated settlement that accommodates the divergent ideological stands of Afghanistan's opposing factions.
Numerous experts, including some U.S. military officers and Western diplomats, say the administration hasn't begun to devise such an approach.
"This needs to be a comprehensive effort," Fox said. "There is no cliff edge toward which the Taliban are being herded. There will be no decisive Napoleonic battle. There is no group of commanders sitting patiently under a tent awaiting a delegation under a white flag offering a formal surrender. Insurgencies usually end with political settlements."
"An effective (Afghan) government — on both the local and national level — and an inclusive political settlement will be vital to a lasting peace," he continued.
Underscoring the Taliban's growing boldness, insurgents on Wednesday assaulted an entrance of the largest U.S.-run military base in eastern Afghanistan, detonating a suicide car bomb and unleashing rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire.
Six insurgents wearing explosive vests died in the attack on the southern gate of Jalalabad Airfield, about 80 miles east of Kabul, according to ISAF and local police officials. Two Afghan security guards were wounded in the attack.
(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukour contributed to this article from Kabul.)
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