BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO should be able to nail down plans next month on the size and cost of Afghan security forces needed after most foreign troops leave in 2014, the alliance’s chief said on Wednesday at a meeting where Washington pressed allies to commit funds.
A timetable agreed between NATO and Afghanistan in 2010 calls for the withdrawal of most foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, when Afghan security forces are supposed to have full control.
Afghanistan will need donor countries to provide billions of dollars a year to pay for its army and police. Countries have yet to agree just how big a force is needed and who will pay for it, but are under pressure to fill in the blanks before a summit of the 28-member NATO alliance in Chicago on May 20-21.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a news conference at a meeting of defense and foreign ministers in Brussels not to expect “concrete commitments” on Wednesday.
“Nor is Chicago a pledging conference. But I would expect a clear picture on the size, structure and cost of long-term sustainable Afghan security force,” he said.
An assault on Kabul’s business district on Sunday was a reminder that the Taliban remain a potent threat. But NATO says the militants are growing weaker and Afghan security forces growing stronger. Western countries are now heading for the exits after more than a decade of war.
On Tuesday Australia - which is not a member of NATO but is part of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan - became the latest country to announce a faster-than-planned withdrawal, saying it would start pulling out its troops this year.
Rasmussen said Prime Minister Julia Gillard had made clear Australia would remain committed to Afghanistan after 2014.
France has said it will withdraw its troops by the end of 2013 and New Zealand may pull out before 2014.
Plans now call for 350,000 Afghan security personnel, including 195,000 members of the Afghan army, when NATO pulls out the bulk of its troops, leaving only special forces, trainers and security to protect them. With many NATO allies suffering from high government debt, securing commitment to pay for Afghan forces is proving tough.
“We think that countries in the region should contribute, because they have the largest interest in ensuring the stability of Afghanistan, as well as those countries which were not able to contribute troops for the operation,” said Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. “If you don’t contribute troops, you should contribute funds. We sent troops.”
Rasmussen said no firm decisions had been reached yet. “Four billion dollars...is a good planning base because this figure has been endorsed by Afghanistan and the international community,” he said. “I would expect NATO allies and ISAF to commit themselves to pay a fair share of the total bill.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he wants at least $2 billion a year from Washington after 2014.
Over the past six months, U.S. President Barack Obama has been seeking funding pledges from European countries on funding, but has received no firm commitments so far.
A U.S. official said on Tuesday the United States believed it would be able to announce in Chicago commitments from NATO allies and other partners worth 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) a year.
Efforts are being made to have non-NATO and non-ISAF countries - such as the Gulf states or perhaps Japan - contribute to the bill.
This week’s meetings, on Wednesday and Thursday, come after renewed violence further shook Western public support for the war. On Sunday, insurgents attacked the capital’s heavily-guarded diplomatic district, sparking 18 hours of fighting.
Afghan forces backed by NATO troops killed 35 insurgents. Eleven Afghan troops and four civilians were also killed.
Rasmussen said Taliban or Taliban-linked attacks were down 9 percent in 2011 from 2010, and another 10 percent during the first months of this year. He praised the performance of Afghan forces in Sunday’s battles.
“We have really now seen in practice the Afghan security forces deal in a very professional way with security challenges,” Rasmussen said.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Missy Ryan; Editing by Peter Graff