By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO foreign ministers agreed on Tuesday to launch a new training mission for Afghanistan next year, replacing combat troops who pull out by the end of the year after 13 years of war.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the new mission, named Resolute Support, will start on Jan. 1, 2015, the day after the NATO combat mission ends, to train and assist Afghan security forces in their conflict with Taliban fighters.
"Afghanistan's future is now in the hands of Afghans," Stoltenberg told NATO foreign ministers seated around an oval table in the Western alliance's headquarters.
While Afghanistan's military and police remain in control of all 34 provincial capitals, violence has risen in the last year and the rate of casualties suffered by local security forces has been described by the U.S. military as unsustainable.
Under the NATO plan, a contingent of 12,000 foreign troops will make up the mission that stays on in Afghanistan after a war that killed almost 3,500 foreign soldiers.
Most will come from the United States because of delays in other NATO countries contributing more troops, a contentious issue because of U.S. plans to reduce troop levels and maintain only a normal embassy presence in Kabul by the end of 2016.
"Meeting the gap in numbers for the Resolute mission is critical," Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told ministers in Brussels. "We are not yet able to do everything alone."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that delays in finalizing the Resolute Support mission this year were the reason NATO countries had fallen behind on their promised support. The United States will fill the shortfall in NATO troops only temporarily, he said.
"That gap is slowly being filled," Kerry told a news conference. "We are working to sign up additional countries. NATO member countries are close to meeting the troop levels."
The 350,000-strong Afghan military and police forces have taken over security across most of the country, left to fight the Taliban in their first real test since the militant Islamists were ousted from power in 2001 by U.S.-led forces.