Nato chief says there is no alternative to staying in Afghanistan
Nato's secretary general warned on Monday that there was "no alternative" to a prolonged frontline role in Afghanistan as the organisation prepared a phased withdrawal plan based on the US strategy in Iraq.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the Lisbon summit of Nato members that begins on Friday would commit the alliance to train and support Afghan troops battling the Taliban in substantial numbers through to the 2014 deadline for local forces to take over security.
His comments came as Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, said intrusive foreign military operations in Afghan communities were exacerbating the threat from the Taliban. Mr Rasmussen, however, said that Nato operations were crucial to bringing the Taliban to heel and for the talks that are considered essential for a lasting solution.
"I consider it of utmost importance to continue our military operations, because the fact is that it is the increasing military pressure on the Taliban and the Taliban leadership that has stimulated the reconciliation talks," Mr Rasmussen said. "So there is no alternative to continuing the military operations."
A blueprint drawn up by American officials sets out a step-by-step transfer of powers in Afghanistan that would be heavily supported by coalition troops. It has been reported that the blueprint envisages a period of up to two years from next summer to hand over nominal power to Afghan troops across the country. As with Iraq – where America maintains 50,000 troops, down from a peak of 150,000 three years ago – there would also be an even longer deployment of Nato forces for training and back up.
"Iraq is a pretty decent blueprint for how to transition in Afghanistan," a US official told the New York Times. "But the key will be constructing an Afghan force that is truly capable of taking the lead."
The Lisbon summit is one of the most important meetings of the alliance in decades. It will redefine what Nato does for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Officials also expect a substantial rapprochement with Russia. Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, will attend a Nato/Russia summit alongside Mr Obama and David Cameron. The Russian leader will sign co-operation agreements on missile defence shields and Afghanistan.
However the effort to extend Nato's remit to defence against rogue ballistic missiles will result in a significant concession to Turkey. No country will be identified as the central danger after Ankara, which is stepping up diplomatic and trade ties across its region, said it did not want Iran singled out. "The fact is that more than 30 countries have or are aspiring to get missile technology," Mr Rasmussen said. "There is no reason to name specific countries, because there are already a lot of them."
A senior US official also acknowledged that Turkey's position had resulted in a change of emphasis but that both countries were now "on the same side" on missile defence. He said: "It's not just Iran."