Brussels: NATO defence ministers hold talks on Thursday on the war in Afghanistan as allies await a key US decision on the scope and pace of a drawdown of US troops set to start next month.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who meets with his counterparts in Brussels one last time before retiring at the end of the month, has sparred with White House aides pushing for a faster reduction of the 100,000 US troops.
After a four-day farewell trip to US forces in Afghanistan, Gates said on Tuesday that US and NATO-led forces were on the verge of securing a "decisive blow" against the Taliban insurgency.
His remarks reflected his view that a troop surge in the nearly 10-year-old war has begun to bear fruit and that a withdrawal, set to start in July, should proceed at a cautious pace.
As US President Barack Obama weighs his options, some White House officials believe the death of Osama bin Laden and a ballooning budget deficit demand a steep reduction in the US military presence in Afghanistan.
The US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was triggered by the Taliban`s failure to hand over bin Laden in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, but the war has become unpopular in Europe.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insists that the killing of bin Laden by US special forces in Pakistan would not alter the alliance`s commitment to finishing the job in Afghanistan.
NATO has decided to begin handing the lead role on the battlefield to Afghan forces this year with the aim of giving them the lead nationwide by 2014.
"Obviously during that process, or transition, you will see a gradual change of role that our troops play in Afghanistan from combat into support," Rasmussen said on Monday.
"And you may also see some withdrawals. But such reductions in the troop level will take place in an organised and coordinated manner," he said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced last month that Britain would pull out 450 troops by the end of 2011, defying defence chiefs who wanted a smaller reduction. Britain has 9,500 troops in Afghanistan.
The Netherlands withdrew its combat troops last year and decided to send police trainers this year. Canada plans to switch to a training mission this year while Poland has said it wants to do the same in 2012.
Lawmakers in Germany, the third-largest contingent with 5,000 troops, agreed in January to extend the mission by 12 months but with a clause calling for them to begin coming home at the end of the year, if conditions permit.
As NATO plots its exit strategy, Afghan President Hamid Karzai reprimanded the alliance last week after he said 14 civilians were killed by an air strike in Helmand province.
Obama expressed his "sorrow" over the recent civilian casualties in a videoconference call on Wednesday.