BRUSSELS Osama bin Laden's death will not change NATO plans in Afghanistan but his killing in neighboring Pakistan shows a need for more security cooperation there, the alliance's chief said on Wednesday.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said the U.S. operation in which the al Qaeda chief was killed was justified, brushing aside some accusations that Washington acted outside international law.
"The bottom line here is that the founder of al Qaeda has been responsible for the death of thousands of innocent people, and I think it has been justified to carry out this operation against him," the head of the 28-nation Western military alliance told a news briefing.
"And I do hope that this very successful operation will lead to undermining one of the world's most dangerous terrorist networks."
However, Rasmussen said international terrorism continued to pose a direct threat to NATO security and global stability.
"Our reason for being in Afghanistan is clear and our strategy will not change," he said. "NATO allies and partners will continue the mission to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for extremism."
The U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan began in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks by al Qaeda on New York and Washington, and ousted the then-ruling Taliban who had refused to hand over bin Laden.
NATO leaders plan to hand full control of security in Afghanistan to Afghan forces by the end of 2014 and have said the NATO-led force could halt combat operations by then if security conditions are good enough.
STAYING THE COURSE
Bin Laden's death, and NATO commitments elsewhere including Libya, have raised questions as to whether troop withdrawals could be speeded up.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Wednesday this was an option being considered by France as well as by the United States.
Asked about the comments, Rasmussen said: "As far as Bin Laden is concerned, it doesn't mean that our operation in Afghanistan will change. We shall stay the course in Afghanistan.
"We shall remain in Afghanistan as long as necessary in order to carry out our mission."
Pakistan is under pressure from the West to explain how bin Laden could live for several years near the Pakistani capital without local intelligence knowing; Rasmussen said NATO allies should work closer with Pakistan.
"It goes without saying that it takes a positive engagement of Pakistan to ensure a long-term solution to the conflict in Afghanistan," he said. "This is also the reason why we have invested some efforts in developing a partnership with Pakistan, and recent events do not change our strategy in that respect.
"On the contrary, I think it just underlines how important it is to continuously engage Pakistan positively, so we will proceed on that path and continue our efforts to strengthen bonds between NATO and Pakistan."
Pakistan is the recipient of billions of dollars of aid every year, but Washington and Islamabad have clashed in the past over Pakistan's commitment to fighting Islamic militancy.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Charlie Dunmore; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Rex Merrifield)