'Impossible' to set date for Afghan withdrawal: Gates



WASHINGTON (AFP) — US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday it was far too early to set a date for the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan, where NATO faces a growing insurgency.

"We would all like to have a situation in which our mission in Afghanistan has been completed and we can bring our troops home. I do not see that happening anytime in the near future," Gates told a news conference with his French counterpart, Herve Morin.

"I think it's impossible to put a date on when you might firmly say all the troops are coming out," Gates said.

The defense chief said a review of US strategy underway was examining the goals of the Afghan mission and how progress could be measured.

"And I think we will have a much better idea of the way forward, at least as far as the United States is concerned, when that review is complete," Gates said.

President Barack Obama has approved the deployment of an additional 17,000 troops to bolster the 38,000-strong US force in Afghanistan battling Taliban insurgents and other militants.

Morin said that France, which has more than 3,000 troops in Afghanistan, shared the same view and that a strategy with clearly-defined objectives would demonstrate that NATO states do not intend to stay in the country permanently.

"We will stay as long as necessary," Morin said.

But he added: "As the president of the Republic (Nicolas Sarkozy) said and as we all say, here, we do not want to stay forever."

Gates and other US officials have spoken of setting out more realistic goals in Afghanistan, comments which have raised concerns in Kabul of a possible early US exit.

US officials had assured Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Rahim Wardak that Washington remained committed to Afghanistan, Gates said.

"I think that the conversations that he had here in Washington last week provided considerable reassurance to him that nobody was talking about abandoning Afghanistan, but rather we were trying to come up with shorter term goals, where we could measure progress," he said.

Gates also said the United States favors holding elections in Afghanistan on August 20 as scheduled but hopes a way can be found to address constitutional concerns raised by President Hamid Karzai.

US and NATO efforts to improve security for crucial elections in August have been complicated by Karzai's bid to move up the polls to April, before his term expires on May 21.

"I think it's a legitimate concern on the part of President Karzai," he said.

Karzai has issued a decree to schedule the polls in April, saying holding the polls after his term ends would violate the country's constitution.

But the Afghan voting authority as well as the United Nations and NATO allies have insisted the vote should be held later to allow time to prepare due to winter weather and a violent insurgency.

Gates said the election authority and the United States "think it would be difficult to arrange a fair and free election, and a relatively secure election in Afghanistan before August."

"What is happening here is an effort to try and figure out what is the best way to bridge the period from May 22nd to an election in August," Gates said.

"I think the international community, as well as different elements in the Afghan government and parliament are trying to figure out the right way forward here."

But Gates said Afghanistan would avert a constitutional crisis that could call into question the legitimacy of the Kabul government.

"I believe that there will be a government in Afghanistan after May 22nd that has legitimacy and has support for that legitimacy from different elements of the country and government," he said.

Before his meeting with Gates, the French defense minister said on Monday that holding elections in April could prove "complicated."

Britain has also urged Karzai not to go ahead with early elections in April, saying the August date was better for security reasons.