NATO seeks Afghan accord as it looks for new role

BRUSSELS - NATO foreign ministers will press Afghanistan Tuesday to accept terms for a continued alliance role after withdrawal next year as they chart its future following its biggest military operation yet.

Officials said the focus of a two-day meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels is to build on its active military role since the early 1990s, from the Balkans to Afghanistan and Libya, safeguarding gains in inter-operability and capability at a time when defence budgets are under strain.

The aim is to ensure NATO remains relevant and effective in a changing world where the challenges are as much military as political and economic, threatening to boil over into conflict and social upheaval.

The 28 allies, plus partners and sometimes adversaries such as Russia, will review immediate issues such as how to destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, officials said.

Missile defence, a hugely sensitive issue for Moscow, is also on the agenda on fears of a threat from Iran despite the recent signing of an initial deal on its contested nuclear programme.

Relations with Ukraine and Georgia provide another difficult issue for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his US counterpart Secretary of State John Kerry as NATO seeks to maintain and boost ties with former Soviet states.

The touchstone topic however is Afghanistan and the post-2014 role US-led forces will play as NATO winds down a war begun in 2001 to oust the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The current plan is for NATO to put 8,000 to 12,000 troops into a training and assistance mission but only if Kabul signs a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with Washington which lays down their legal and operational status.

President Hamid Karzai is refusing to sign however until after April's presidential elections, when he stands down.

He has even added new conditions in what analysts say is an effort to show that he is an independent, patriotic leader.

Karzai believes, they say, that the United States will not take the "zero option" of a complete troop pull-out but NATO officials think otherwise, noting how Washington withdrew from Iraq in 2011 when it could not get an accord with Baghdad.

The BSA text has been agreed and approved by Afghan tribal leaders in a "Loya Jirga" convened by Karzai himself, a senior NATO diplomat said Monday. "It is now closed ... a prompt signing we think is very important," the diplomat said, stressing that military and political realities give only limited time for the post-2014 mission to be finalised. "You cannot wait until mid-2014 and expect the United States to (then) write a big cheque," the diplomat said, adding: "This has been made very clear."

Other NATO officials warned that future aid could be put at risk without a deal as donors want the reassurance of a troop status accord and continued alliance presence.

The official put aid for the Afghan armed forces at $4.1 billion annually - of which Kabul at best could only raise $500 million - and $4.0 billion for development.

If there is no Afghan-US accord, there is "no post-2014 mission", the official said.

In that case, funding "in theory could continue to be forthcoming ... but in practice there must be a question whether donors would have the confidence to contribute".

Karzai on Sunday accused Washington of halting essential supplies to some army and police units in an effort to force him to sign, a charge rejected.

About 75,000 NATO combat troops are still deployed in Afghanistan, the majority of them American, and are being steadily drawn down as the alliance prepares to withdraw.