BRUSSELS (AP) — Germany and Italy will join the United States as "lead nations" in regions of Afghanistan after NATO transitions into a noncombat mission there after 2014, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday.
The Pentagon chief was speaking after the Atlantic alliance laid out a new plan shifting into a training and assistance role for the Afghan forces set to take over from NATO-led troops in about 18 months. He didn't specify, however, how many troops NATO will maintain in Afghanistan after that — a key unresolved question about how to help the impoverished, insurgency-wracked nation stabilize in the years to come.
"The United States has committed to being the largest single contributor to this mission" — as lead nation in the restive east and south, Hagel told reporters after a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels.
"We appreciate the commitments that other nations are making, including announcements by Germany and Italy that they will serve as lead nations for the north and the west" — zones the two European countries are in charge of now in the fight against Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan. Turkey, he said, was "favorably considering" a role as "framework nation" in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
"I laid out in the last day and a half, first the firm commitment of the United States to go forward with being the framework nation in a post-2014 Afghanistan. We will provide more personnel. We are looking at providing new, expert, professional assistance to the Afghan army in the area of contracting and fuel support — not just soldiers," said Hagel. "We intend to be there for the long haul, and I made that commitment very clear today — as well as financial assistance."
In April, Germany offered to provide between roughly 600 and 800 soldiers in Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif for a two-year period starting in 2015 as part of the NATO transition.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said only that the total size of the noncombat mission force will be "significantly smaller" than the tens of thousands of U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan now, and that decisions about force numbers after 2014 will come later.
"I feel confident that our Resolute Support mission will be fully manned," he said, referring to the code name of the planned noncombat mission.
There currently are about 100,000 international troops in Afghanistan, including 66,000 from the United States. The U.S. troop total is scheduled to drop to about 32,000 by early next year, with the bulk of the decline occurring during the winter.
The new mission "will not be ISAF by another name," Fogh Rasmussen said of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. "It will focus on the national institutions such as the security ministries, and the core level of army and police command."
Fogh Rasmussen also put some of the responsibility for greater stability in Afghanistan on President Hamid Karzai's government.
"Commitment is a two-way street," the NATO chief said. "Continued Afghan commitment to better governance, combatting corruption, securing human rights and fair elections, will pave the way for continued international support. This is a broad international effort, but at our meeting today we will make clear that we are ready to play our part."
Afghanistan's defense minister, Bismillah Mohammadi, said the NATO meeting was a "golden opportunity" to affirm its support for his country.
"We welcome the readiness, the willingness, and the resolve of NATO members and the NATO community to their continued and renewed commitment to Afghanistan in the future," he told reporters through an interpreter. "This was good news for the Afghan people and bad news for the enemies of the Afghan people."
There has been sharp debate over whether the U.S. should be more specific about its long-term military commitment to Afghanistan. Some defense experts have suggested that a plan that U.S. and NATO officials have discussed to leave a residual force of 8,000 to 12,000 in Afghanistan may not be large enough.
Last week, retired Gen. John Allen and a former undersecretary of defense urged the White House to adopt and announce its plan as soon as possible.
Training Afghan military and police to take over security is essential to the withdrawal of NATO combat forces remaining in Afghanistan nearly 12 years after toppling the Taliban's hardline regime for sheltering al-Qaida's terrorist leadership.
The start of the insurgents' spring fighting season in April has been a crucial test for those forces, as U.S. military trainers reduce their role on the front lines.
Associated Press Writer Lolita C. Baldor in Brussels contributed to this report.