ISTANBUL (Reuters) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants NATO allies to send up to 4,000 more trainers and mentors to prepare Afghanistan's army and police to begin taking over security next year, U.S. officials have said.
A shortage of trainers and mentors could cast doubt on U.S. President Barack Obama's timetable for starting to hand over responsibility to Afghan forces so U.S. and allied troops can begin a gradual withdrawal from the country in July 2011.
But the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, expressed confidence that Afghan forces would grow quickly enough to allow the drawdown to begin on schedule.
"We will start a withdrawal of at least American forces at that point," he told reporters, referring to July 2011.
"I don't know the rate that that will occur," he said, adding changes in troop strength would depend on conditions.
"But I think that Afghan capacity will have grown to the point where that will be an option without a reduction in the ability to provide security," he told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO defense ministers.
He acknowledged the training mission had been "underresourced" but said Afghan army recruitment and the cohesion between U.S., NATO and Afghan forces were increasing.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates would appeal to NATO defense ministers meeting in Istanbul today and on February 5 to "contribute their forces to this cause in as timely a manner as possible, just as we are."
Obama has ordered 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan with the aim of containing a widening Taliban insurgency while building up the strength of Afghan forces.
"He will implore them to act as quickly as they can to get their forces into the fight because time is of the essence," Morrell told reporters.
Window Of Opportunity
"We need to seize that window of opportunity that's been presented to us to shift the momentum on the ground in our favour and get the Afghan national security forces to the position they need to be to ultimately transition into a leadership role on the security side," he added.
U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder cast 2010 as "the year of maximum effort", critical to turning the tide.
"It is a year we are going to do everything we can so down the road we have to do less.... The key here is the more we can accomplish in 2010 the more we can transition in 2011 and beyond, the more we can draw down," he told reporters.
McChrystal said 2010 would be an "exceptionally important year" but not make-or-break for the effort.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the goal was to "fill that gap" as quickly as possible. The trainers and mentors are needed to grow Afghanistan's security forces to a target of 300,000 personnel in 2011.
The U.S. official estimated about 1,500 to 1,700 instructors or trainers were still needed for the Afghan army and police.
On top of that, another 2,500 so-called mentors were needed, he said. That figure includes about 20 teams of mentors for Afghanistan's army and 120 teams for the police.
The official acknowledged that police training in Afghanistan had been a "haphazard effort." But he said a new structure was in place ensure it would more successful.
"Everyone wants to see troop ... numbers going down. Everyone understands that only way we're going to have our troops go down is for Afghan capability to go up."
More than 110,000 foreign troops are now in Afghanistan. U.S. allies have pledged up to 9,000 troops on top of the additional troops committed by Obama.
The European Union has promised to send 400 police trainers, but fewer than 300 have actually been committed since the launch of the mission in 2007, mostly due to safety concerns.