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Rumsfeld warns against early withdrawal
Updated: 2005-12-22 14:14

In a holiday season pep talk to U.S. troops, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said an early withdrawal from Afghanistan or Iraq would lead to new terrorist attacks on Americans at home.

Rumsfeld spoke to several hundred soldiers in a heated tent at this base that serves as the main airfield for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

"If we were to withdraw from Afghanistan precipitously, or from Iraq, the terrorists would attack us first somewhere else and then they would attack us at home, let there be no doubt," he said.

Rumsfeld thanked the soldiers for their service.

"The momentous changes here could not have happened without your service," he said.

Earlier in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, Rumsfeld said reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will not weaken the campaign against Taliban fighters and al-Qaida terrorists who still threaten this war-torn country.

"Our level of activity is substantial and continuous," Rumsfeld told a news conference outside the heavily guarded Presidential Palace after meeting with President Hamid Karzai.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld tours a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, on Wednesday Dec. 21, 2005.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld tours a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, on Wednesday Dec. 21, 2005. [AP]
"We certainly remain committed to our long-term relationship, the strategic partnership between our two countries," Rumsfeld said.

A day earlier, he announced that the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan will shrink from about 19,000 currently to about 16,000 by next summer.

"We will continue to be focused on rooting out the Taliban and al-Qaida that still exist in causing difficulties for your country," Rumsfeld told Karzai, who stood beside him at the news conference.

Karzai, noting that Vice President Dick Cheney had visited Kabul on Monday, told reporters the U.S. government has assured the Afghans that a reduction in U.S. forces will not undermine joint efforts to improve internal security.

"The United States has assured us of continued support and assistance on all matters," including security, Karzai said, adding that his own forces are becoming more capable of handling problems on their own.

There are now about 26,800 soldiers in the Afghan national army and about 55,000 national police. Rumsfeld said the remaining U.S. troops would continue to help train and equip the Afghan security forces and will work with NATO on a variety of security projects.

Rumsfeld told Karzai it was his 10th visit to Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001 that ousted the Taliban. More than four years later, U.S. forces still have not captured al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who used Afghanistan as a base before the U.S. invasion.

The defense secretary told reporters traveling with him that bin Laden, if still alive, is most likely hiding in the Afghan-Pakistan border area. He said he finds it hard to believe that bin Laden is able to fully command the al-Qaida organization, since he presumably is spending a great deal of time and effort avoiding capture.

On a day that began before dawn in Washington, Rumsfeld crossed 11 time zones on three airplane fights and six helicopter rides that included stops in Pakistan before finishing at Bagram air base, north of Kabul.

In Pakistan, Rumsfeld toured U.S. military units that are part of an international humanitarian relief operation for victims of the Oct. 8 earthquake, which killed more than 80,000 people and forced more than 3 million from their homes as it devastated parts of northwestern Pakistan and the disputed Kashmir region.

At Muzaffarabad, a town near the quake's epicenter, Rumsfeld visited the 212th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. The unit's commander, Col. Angel Lugo, told him that more than 200 patients a day are being treated at the facility, which includes an intensive care unit.

Lugo said only about one-third of the patients are suffering directly from quake-related injuries. Many are ill and cannot find help elsewhere because the quake destroyed a large number of local medical facilities. They range from infants to the elderly, he said.

Rumsfeld also flew by helicopter to Shinkiari, where a Marine Corps medical unit is providing care for about 200 people a day, and to Qasim army airfield, where U.S. soldiers are maintaining the helicopters and other aircraft used in the relief mission.

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