NATO's chief says ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Libya demonstrate that the alliance plays an "indispensable" role in dealing with current and future security challenges.
"In Libya we and our allies have been remarkably successful _ we have saved countless lives and helped the Libyan people take their destiny into their own hands," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday.
"In Afghanistan ... transition is on track and the insurgents will not be allowed to derail it," he said at the opening of a meeting of defense ministers.
The meeting, the first in a series of conferences of foreign and defense ministers ahead of the alliance's summit in May in Chicago, is aimed at exploring ways to end the aerial campaign in Libya and train Afghan security forces for a larger role in their country's war.
In a speech before the meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged NATO member states to cooperate more closely and pool their resources in order to make up for the shortfalls that have plagued the alliance's operations in Libya and Afghanistan.
"It would be a tragic outcome if the alliance shed the very capabilities that allowed it to successfully conduct these operations," said Panetta, who is making his first visit to Europe after taking over from Robert Gates as Pentagon chief in July.
European members and Canada provided most of the strike aircraft used in the Libya campaign. But the war exposed shortages in their capabilities in strategic transport, aerial surveillance, air refueling, and unmanned drones, most of which had to be supplied by the U.S.
With the Pentagon facing $450 billion in budget cuts over the next 10 years, allies can't assume that the U.S. will be able to continue covering their shortcomings, Panetta said in a speech to the Brussels-based organization Carnegie Europe.
But there is little appetite in Europe for more spending on boosting such capabilities when defense budgets are being slashed as part of public spending cuts and other austerity measures designed to deal with the impact of the economic crisis.
"I think there is an expectation on all NATO members that burden sharing has been brought to the front," Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay said. "I think there is an expectation that countries will share proportionately the load."
The operation in Libya, which enabled Moammar Gadhafi's opponents to oust his autocratic regime, has been cited as proof that the Cold War alliance remains relevant to international security.
"Our operations in Libya and Afghanistan demonstrate that NATO is the indispensable alliance," Fogh Rasmussen said.
NATO warplanes have flown nearly 25,000 sorties, including more than 9,000 strike missions, since the strikes began in March.
But the campaign also revealed deep rifts within the Western military alliance. Only eight of the 28 members participated, while the others stayed away _ mostly for fear of how the new mission would affect the alliance's commitment to Afghanistan.
Officials said they want at least one of the alliance's current missions _ which also include the 12-year deployment to Kosovo and anti-piracy patrols off Somalia _ to conclude successfully, quickly and for good.
"No one sees a leading role for NATO for the stabilization and the help that is needed in (postwar) Libya," German defense minister Thomas de Maiziere said.
In Afghanistan, NATO's troops and the government's security forces are still struggling against Taliban insurgents, whom they outnumber by about 15 to 1. Some 130,000 NATO troops are currently fighting in Afghanistan; more than 2,700 NATO troops have died in the war.
High-profile Taliban attacks this year have undermined NATO's claim that it has the upper hand, and the United Nations released a report last month saying the monthly level of violence in the country was significantly higher than in 2010.
The U.S. and NATO began transferring security responsibilities this year to newly trained Afghan forces with the goal of withdrawing all their combat troops by the end of 2014.
Other issues at the two-day NATO meeting will include the situation in Kosovo, where intercommunal clashes continue nearly 12 years after an alliance bombing campaign ended Serbia's rule there, and naval patrols off Somalia, stretching into a third year after a three-month authorization period in 2008.
Follow Slobodan Lekic on Twitter at http://twitter.com/slekich
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