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    Funding large Afghan force possible: NATO

    BRUSSELS (PAN): The NATO chief on Thursday called for allies to undo defence spending cutbacks to keep the western alliance strong enough to deal with present and future challenges.

    Current plans for slashing the strength of the 352,000-strong Afghan security force by a third after 2015 could be delayed until 2018, some alliance officials indicated, explaining a final decision in this regard was yet to be taken.

    In response to a query on the issue during a press conference here, Anders Fogh Rasmussen said financing the larger force was possible and preferable to fielding foreign troops. "I feel confident we will be able to finance Afghan forces of that size."

    If the current reductions continued, they would have a negative impact on NATO members’ ability to provide effective protection for their populations, he said, urging allies to use their resources more efficiently by jacking up defence allocations once they overcame their financial woes.

    Without commenting directly on $46 billion US cutbacks that are to kick in from March 1, the Danish diplomat said: "From an overall perspective, it is a matter of concern that we have seen and continue to see declining defence budgets all over the alliance."

    The ministers are set to debate the shift in NATO’s role in Afghanistan from the combat mission in 2014 to training, advising and assisting the local forces, who might be kept at their peak strength for some years after 2014.

    “Over the last decade, in Afghanistan, Kosovo and other operations, our servicemen and women have learned to work together more closely than ever before,” the secretary-general said.

    Afghan Defence Minister Gen. Bismillah Mohammadi is attending Friday’s session of the meeting, which will focus on NATO’s mission in Afghanistan and relations with Ukraine.

    Also on the agenda is the Connected Forces Initiative, which was launched at the Chicago Summit in May 2012 to reinforce the skills of cooperation and interoperability between allied forces over a decade of operations through a reinforced programme of exercises.

    Representatives of the 50 ISAF partner countries, Afghanistan, European Union and United Nations will ponder over their engagement with Afghanistan and the ongoing process of transition to local security responsibility.

    General Joseph Dunford, who took over as ISAF commander on February 10, will brief the participants on the overall security environment and Afghan forces’ capabilities.

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