BRUSSELS NATO allies agreed on Wednesday to extend Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen's term by a year to the end of July 2014, keeping him in charge as NATO-led forces wind down their combat role in Afghanistan.
Rasmussen, a 59-year-old former Danish prime minister, will stay in the job until a few months before the end-2014 deadline for NATO to hand over full responsibility for security in the country to Afghans.
"I think the first of August 2014 is an appropriate time to change leadership, so that a new secretary-general can oversee the implementation of the new mission we will establish in Afghanistan from 2015," Rasmussen told reporters.
The NATO-led force in Afghanistan faces a huge logistical task over the next few years to withdraw foreign soldiers and their equipment.
From 2015, NATO will scale back its role to leading a mission to train and advise Afghan security forces. That mission will be discussed by alliance defense ministers at a meeting in Brussels next week.
U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed the decision to extend Rasmussen's tenure, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
"The United States commends the secretary-general for his strong leadership of America's most important security alliance, and we look forward to continuing to work with him and with our NATO allies and partners as we strengthen and revitalize NATO for the 21st century," he said.
Potential successors have begun to jostle to take over from Rasmussen, with former Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini throwing his hat into the ring.
The contest to succeed Rasmussen after five years in 2014 will coincide with a scramble for top jobs at Brussels' other main international institution, the European Commission. The current term of the Commission, the EU's executive, runs until November 2014.
Rasmussen took the helm at NATO in August 2009 and has been chief during a turbulent period in Afghanistan, where NATO-led forces have been engaged in fierce fighting against Taliban insurgents.
More than 2,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel have been killed in 11 years of war in Afghanistan as well as more than 400 British soldiers and 158 Canadians.
The NATO mission has also seen a surge in attacks on foreign troops by gunmen wearing Afghan police or army uniforms.
At least 52 members of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force have been killed this year in rogue attacks, leading to a temporary suspension of some joint operations with Afghan forces last month that has now been largely lifted.
Last year, a NATO bombing campaign in Libya, approved by the U.N. Security Council, helped underpin an Arab Spring uprising that ended Muammar Gaddafi's rule.
NATO chiefs are traditionally appointed for a four-year term with the possibility of extending by a year. There have been cases where a NATO chief's term has been extended for a few months beyond that but in recent times, secretaries-general have not been given full second terms.
(This story corrects date of end of European Commission term in paragraph 9)
(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie, Paul Taylor and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Alison Williams)