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By Mark John
MUNICH, Germany, Feb 10 NATO expects to have smashed most of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan within the next two years but will need to keep troops there after 2009, the alliance's chief said on Saturday.
"In 2009, we should see Afghanistan on the road to peace with the back of the resistance broken -- but with undoubtedly a NATO military presence on the ground," Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a security conference in Munich.
"I hope in 2009 that we see an Afghanistan government that is better able to take the country into its own hands, which is what we hope for," he added.
However the scale of the challenge facing the alliance was underlined as Afghan national security adviser Zalmai Rassoul told the same meeting his country was facing a resurgent Taliban and an influx of foreign fighters.
"While we have come far, we are standing at a crossroads in 2007 between moving forward along a democratic path and letting it slip from our grasp," said Rassoul.
NATO commanders have in the past forecast the imminent end of the insurgency. But with more than 4,000 people killed in violence last year, 2005 was the bloodiest since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban Islamist government in 2001.
The United States says the next year will be vital in ending the conflict, while other allies stress that NATO troops will need to be there for the long haul.
Concerns the alliance is getting bogged down came to the fore in Italy on Saturday after Defence Minister Arturo Parisi stunned pacifists in Romano Prodi's coalition by saying the government may not cut its presence in Afghanistan until 2011.
Leftists in the government warned they could be provoked into leaving the coalition over the comments, but Prodi repeated his commitment to the mission where Italy has 1,900 troops.
De Hoop Scheffer renewed his call on NATO allies to come forward with reinforcements to the alliance-led International Security Assistance Force, whose numbers he said had swelled to 35,000 largely because of recent U.S. deployments.
"The priority now is to deploy sufficient forces," he said, calling for such moves to be accompanied by a greater effort to bring aid and reconstruction to the impoverished country.
The United States urged allies this week to send more troops to Afghanistan to crush an expected upsurge in Taliban violence, saying the next few weeks would be pivotal in the battle.
But European nations remained reluctant to commit further reinforcements, with Germany questioning whether more were needed and putting the emphasis on finding the right balance between counter-insurgency and reconstruction efforts.
While new Pentagon chief Robert Gates stepped back from public criticism of allies at a meeting of defence ministers in Seville on Thursday, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain pulled no punches at the Munich conference.
"The international community still falls far short in meeting its prior pledges and in committing the resources Afghanistan needs to avoid failure," he said.
"If NATO does not prevail in Afghanistan, it is difficult to imagine the alliance undertaking another 'hard security' operation -- in or out of area -- and its credibility would suffer a grievous blow," he warned.
(Additional reporting by Kristin Roberts and Madeline Cambers in Munch, Robin Pomeroy in Rome)