By David Brunnstrom
BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – The head of NATO urged member states on Thursday to step up their efforts to train and equip Afghan forces, warning that inaction would have serious consequences.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was speaking before a meeting with alliance defense ministers in Bratislava on a new approach against the widening Taliban insurgency.
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 become a training ground for al Qaeda if NATO withdrew, putting pressure on nuclear-armed Pakistan and spreading instability through 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.
Rasmussen said this week he hoped the NATO ministers would endorse a counter-insurgency strategy advocated by McChrystal, for which he said there was broad backing.
But diplomats say most European countries are reluctant to send more troops because of hostile public opinion over rising casualties and Washington would have to contribute heavily to any troop increase, despite waning U.S. public support.
There are already 65,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and another 39,000 from allied nations.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on his way to the meeting that 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.