ROBERT Gates has conceded the Afghan and Pakistan governments would have legitimate fears about the US withdrawing its forces.

Given the US abandoned the region 21 years ago, the US Defence Secretary said yesterday he could understand Pakistan in particular had a “certain hedge” about the US commitment to stay.

But he had noticed a change in strategic thinking as Pakistan understood the two countries shared a common enemy.

Speaking on the American ABC network, the Defence Secretary was commenting on the doubts raised after classified US military documents published by WikiLeaks said Pakistan’s intelligence agency had helped Taliban militants to launch attacks against US troops in Afghanistan. The documents also say Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency was involved in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The US covertly assisted Afghan militants to fight the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, but dropped its support when the Soviets withdrew. The Taliban then took control in Kabul.

“We walked out on Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1989 and left them basically holding the bag,” Dr Gates said. “And there is always the fear we will do that again. And I believe that’s the reason there’s a certain hedge. But what I see is a change in the strategic calculus in Pakistan.”

Dr Gates said Pakistan was becoming more involved as a US partner as it faced the same insurgents. Evidence of Pakistan’s commitment was sending 140,000 soldiers to fight insurgents in the country’s northwest.

The US Defence Secretary said he was “mortified” at the thought the leaks could put Afghan informants and US soldiers in danger, blasting the WikiLeaks website for “moral culpability”.

He hosed down suggestions of a big US troop pullout from Afghanistan next July, which Barack Obama has identified as the target to start a withdrawal. “My personal opinion is that drawdowns early on will be of fairly limited numbers,” he said.

When Mr Obama announced an increase of 30,000 troops for Afghanistan in December, he said his intention was to start the withdrawal in 18 months.

Dr Gates dismissed suggestions the Taliban could “run out the clock” waiting for the target date. “We will be there in the 19th month, and we will be there with a lot of troops,” he said.

The US has nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. The total force is almost 150,000 with NATO soldiers, and 1550 from Australia. While Britain has maintained its commitment to fight the Taliban, other European countries are considering withdrawal, and the Dutch have pulled out.

Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, dismissed claims his country would be interested in supporting the Taliban. “The Taliban are very clear we are the enemy,” he said.