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NATO Chief Says Afghan Mission To Get New Momentum

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (file photo)

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (file photo)

EDINBURGH (Reuters) -- NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said the alliance's mission in Afghanistan will soon gain momentum, in remarks seeking to allay doubts about the operation.

He said he was confident NATO could start next year to hand over more security responsibility to Afghan forces, allowing the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) gradually to move into a support role.

Mounting casualties this year in some of the fiercest fighting since the Taliban were ousted from power in late 2001 has undermined public support for the war in some NATO countries, including Britain.

Rasmussen said he understood people's concerns about the cost of NATO's Afghan mission and its direction.

"But people should be reassured that soon there will be new momentum," he said in the text of a speech to a meeting of the NATO parliamentary assembly in Edinburgh.

"In a few weeks, I expect we will decide, in NATO, on the approach, and troop levels needed, to take our mission forward," Rasmussen said.

"I'm confident it will be a counter-insurgency approach, with substantially more forces, and we will place the Afghan population at the core of ISAF's collective effort -- by focusing on their safety, and by supporting reconstruction and development," he said.

He urged NATO governments to provide more military resources, including extra combat forces for ISAF and more troops to partner with and to train Afghan security forces.

U.S. Weighing Options

U.S. President Barack Obama is weighing several options for boosting U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, where international forces face a resurgent Taliban.

Proposed options range from dispatching 10,000 to about 40,000 additional troops, according to a U.S. official.

Republicans have criticized Obama for taking so long to announce his decision.

Nearly 68,000 U.S. and 40,000 allied troops are at present deployed in Afghanistan.

The United States and its allies aim to expand training of Afghan forces so they can take over more security duties.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on November 16 that Britain had offered to host an international conference early next year to set a timetable for transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces from 2010.

Rasmussen said the costs of the Afghan operation were high, but the costs of walking away would be "far, far higher."

"That is why we have to stay the course and build on the considerable progress we have made so far," he said.

If NATO walked away from Afghanistan, "Al-Qaeda would be back in a flash," he said.

"They would have a sanctuary from which to launch their strategy of global jihad -- a strategy that is directed first and foremost against us.

"If we were to walk away, the pressure on nuclear-armed Pakistan would be tremendous. Instability would spread throughout central Asia," he warned.