BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - The head of NATO urged member states on Thursday to step up efforts to train and equip Afghan forces, warning that inaction would have serious consequences.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke before a meeting with alliance defense ministers in Bratislava on a new approach against the widening Taliban insurgency.
U.S. President Barack Obama is still considering a call from the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, for tens of thousands more soldiers.
“We all have to achieve more in training and equipping the Afghan security forces,” Rasmussen told a security conference before the ministers’ meeting in the Slovak capital, which is not expected to announce decisions on troop levels.
“We need other international actors to redouble their efforts to help with reconstruction and development. We have to do more today if we want to be able to do less tomorrow.”
Rasmussen said NATO, which wants Afghan security forces eventually to take over defense tasks, had a mission which was vital for the security of the region and of NATO states.
“I am well aware that there is an increasing number of people who are asking if the cost of our engagement in Afghanistan is too high,” he said, referring to waning public support for the NATO effort in many countries.
“To these people, I want to say very clearly and unambiguously that the cost of inactivity would be far higher.”
Rasmussen said Afghanistan would again become an al Qaeda training ground if NATO withdrew, putting pressure on Pakistan and spreading instability in Central Asia.
“And it would only be a matter of time until we here in Europe would feel the consequences of all of that,” he said.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai said Rasmussen hoped ministers would endorse a broad counter-insurgency approach advocated by McChrystal. NATO has 68 30-person training teams for the Afghan army, a shortfall of nine, he said.
Many more teams would be needed if McChrystal’s proposal to strengthen the army and police to 400,000 was accepted, he said.
There are already 65,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and another 39,000 from allied nations.
At the conference, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow linked domestic security to stability in Afghanistan and said the operation there was “not an American battle, it is a NATO mission.”
However, diplomats say most European NATO states are reluctant to send more troops because of hostile public opinion over rising casualties and Washington would have to contribute heavily to an increase, despite waning U.S. public support.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on his way to the meeting that he would tell Obama first, rather than NATO defense ministers, whether he will recommend sending more troops. Gates gave no indication what his recommendation would be.
Obama said on Wednesday he could reach a decision on his new Afghan war strategy before the outcome of an Afghan election run-off on November 7.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai removed a stumbling block to Obama’s decision when he agreed on Tuesday to a second round of voting after many of his votes in the August presidential election were thrown out as fraudulent.
Editing by Michael Roddy