By Adrian Croft
MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - NATO's chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged the Afghan government on Friday to strive for free, fair and transparent elections in the 2014 presidential poll, saying they marked a critical juncture in the country's quest for peace.
His words came a day after President Hamid Karzai suggested foreign members be removed from the election watchdog, in a step that could be seen as bolstering his grip on power.
"I think it is essential for building trust and confidence between the Afghan people and the Afghan government that the presidential elections take place in a manner that is free, fair and transparent," Rasmussen said in an interview with Reuters on the airstrip at Camp Marmal, a sprawling military base near Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.
He spoke at the end of a two-day visit to Afghanistan with senior diplomats from 35 countries that supply troops to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
Rasmussen told reporters earlier that a smooth political transition of power according to the Afghan constitution would be a "litmus test, an indication of the strength and sustainability of the Afghan democracy".
"The way the presidential election is conducted will have strong importance when it comes to the whole credibility of the transition process," he added.
Rasmussen and the NATO ambassadors have been assessing the progress of their plans gradually to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces, permitting foreign combat troops to leave by the end of 2014.
A security analysis released by the International Crisis Group think-tank this month said Karzai's increasingly unpopular government could collapse after the NATO withdrawal, especially if people lost confidence in the outcome of presidential elections the same year.
"In the current environment, prospects for clean elections and a smooth transition are slim," the ICG report said.
Opponents of Karzai, who is barred from seeking a third term by the Afghan constitution, say they are worried the president is trying to install an ally or relative as his successor to maintain an influence on power.
After meeting Afghan leaders and commanders of the NATO-led force, Rasmussen said the campaign was making significant progress and he reaffirmed the timetable leading towards Afghans taking full security control by the end of 2014.
"Based on this visit, I don't see any need to change the strategy," he said.
Despite Rasmussen's confidence, violence continues across the country as the deadline of end-2014 looms.
A roadside bomb killed at least 19 people, mostly women and children, who were on their way to a wedding in Afghanistan's north on Friday, local police officials said.
Rasmussen said Karzai and other Afghan officials had assured him of their "very, very strong determination to do what it takes" to prevent the alarming increase in "insider" attacks, when Afghan policemen and soldiers turn their weapons on foreign mentors.
At least 52 members of the NATO-led force have been killed so far this year in insider attacks.
(Editing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Jeremy Laurence)