* Coalition casualties rising after nine years of war
* Fox plays down Britain’s withdrawal timeline (Adds additional comments)
By Adam Entous
WASHINGTON, June 30 (Reuters) - Britain’s defense secretary warned NATO allies on Wednesday against prematurely withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and said they should prepare their war-weary publics for a spike in coalition casualties.
Liam Fox, secretary of state for defense, said premature pullouts risked sparking civil war, destabilizing Afghanistan and its nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan, and giving “a shot in the arm to jihadists everywhere.”
“Premature withdrawal would also damage the credibility of NATO, which has been the cornerstone of our defense in the West for more than half a century,” Fox said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Record-high casualties have sharply undercut public support for the war in allied NATO countries. Canada, the Netherlands and Poland have announced plans to withdraw combat forces and U.S. policymakers worry that others could follow suit.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he would like to see UK troops pull out of Afghanistan within five years.
Britain, which has about 9,500 soldiers there now, has struggled to turn the tide on the Taliban insurgency in Helmand province, where most of its troops are deployed.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who met with Fox during his visit, has said he will not be asking Britain to pledge any more troops for Afghanistan.
Fox called Cameron’s timeline an “aspiration” that was in line with U.S. and NATO expectations that Afghan forces will be large and well-trained enough to maintain security by 2014.
“The primary reason for being involved in a conflict is to win it, not to find the earliest exit,” Fox said, summing up Cameron’s withdrawal plan in “one word: success.”
Republicans in Congress say U.S. President Barack Obama sent a contradictory message to NATO allies and the Taliban about U.S. resolve by setting the goal of beginning a gradual withdraw of American forces starting in July 2011.
Obama has made clear any force reductions would be based on conditions.
Fox said coalition casualties were likely to rise further this summer as the U.S.-led counter-insurgency campaign expands in Afghanistan’s restive south.
U.S. General David Petraeus, named to lead the Afghan war effort after the sacking of his predecessor, has likewise warned that violence may intensify in the coming months as major operations in the Taliban birthplace of Kandahar get fully under way.
“The political and military leaders across ISAF (NATO-led International Security Assistance Force) nations need to prepare our public for this,” Fox said of the likely spike in casualties.
To maintain public support, Fox said it was important to clarify the coalition’s objectives, which appeared to fall short of eliminating the Taliban outright.
“Our purpose is to degrade and manage the terrorist threat emanating from the region to ensure that al Qaeda cannot once again have sanctuary in Afghanistan,” he said.
That means “continuing to reverse the momentum of the Taliban-led insurgency” and reducing the threat from the insurgency to “a level that allows the Afghan government to manage it themselves.”
He said the goal was “a stable and capable enough system of national security and governance so the Afghan government can provide internal security on an enduring basis.” (Editing by Xavier Briand)