BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO defense ministers will pave the way this week for the alliance’s training mission in Afghanistan once it ends combat operations in 2014, as a surge in insider attacks raises questions about its timetable and strategy.
The ministers, meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, are set to approve the broad framework for the post-2014 mission. This will “train, advise and assist” Afghan security forces that are due by then to have taken responsibility for security in the whole country.
The talks will give the go-ahead to military experts to begin detailed planning for the mission, which was endorsed by NATO leaders at their Chicago summit in May. But officials say it is too early to expect any details about the number of troops that will be needed for the mission or how much it will cost.
Western countries are keen to show their commitment to supporting Afghanistan will run beyond 2014 and to counter any suggestion they are running for the exit after a grinding 11-year conflict that has cost more than 2,000 U.S. lives and billions of dollars.
President Barack Obama has been criticized by Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney for setting a target for withdrawal, noted Daniel Keohane, head of strategic affairs at the FRIDE think-tank.
“Some people say that’s like telling the Taliban we’re gone after 2014 (and) if they hold out long enough they will win,” said Keohane. “Naturally NATO does not want that to happen.”
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said last week his goal was for the alliance to agree on a detailed outline for the mission early next year and to finalize the plan well before the end of 2013.
“This will give us the time we need to make sure the transition to the new mission is seamless,” he told a news conference, adding that six non-NATO nations had offered to contribute to the mission.
The Syria conflict is not on the agenda for this week’s meeting but the risk of an escalating confrontation between Syria and neighboring Turkey, a NATO member, will be on ministers’ minds and they can raise any issue.
NATO ambassadors threw their support behind Turkey after an emergency meeting on the situation at NATO last week. Turkish forces have now retaliated for six consecutive days against bombardment from northern Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are battling rebels.
Rasmussen has said the alliance has no intention of intervening in Syria but stands ready to defend Turkey if necessary. Some analysts say there is a risk NATO could get dragged into the conflict.
At least 52 members of the NATO-led force have been killed this year by gunmen wearing Afghan police or army uniform, dealing a setback to NATO’s strategy of having foreign troops work closely with Afghan counterparts to train them so that they can hand over security as foreign troops prepare to pull out.
Rasmussen conceded last week that the rogue attacks had undermined trust between foreign and Afghan security forces, although he insisted that NATO’s strategy remained on track.
The rise in insider attacks led commanders last month to suspend some joint operations between Afghan and foreign troops though Rasmussen said last week almost all of these had now resumed.
Editing by Sebastian Moffett and Jon Hemming