By David Alexander
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO is likely to wait until after this year's fighting season in Afghanistan before deciding the size of the international military force that will remain behind after 2014 to train and assist Afghan troops, a U.S. general said on Tuesday.
Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, head of international forces in Afghanistan, said he expected NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels this week to further define the nature of the mission they want to perform in Afghanistan after 2014, when most foreign combat troops withdraw.
Afghan forces are now taking the lead in planning and executing military operations against the Taliban, with U.S.-led NATO troops providing support. Afghan forces are due to assume full security responsibility after 2014, and only a small NATO contingent will remain to provide training, advice and assistance.
U.S. officials said during a meeting of NATO defense ministers in February that the alliance was considering keeping a residual force of 8,000 to 12,000 troops. The White House has been discussing keeping 3,000 to 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan as part of that, and President Barack Obama has come under increasing pressure to specify the number.
Three top defense analysts, including Dunford's predecessor as head of international forces in Afghanistan, issued a report last week urging Obama to state the rough contours of the force soon, rather than wait for completion of an agreement to provide the legal basis for their presence in the country.
The analysts also called for an additional "bridging force" that would remain behind for two or three years to help Afghan forces build their air force, special operations force, medical capacity and logistics ability.
CONFIDENCE IN AFGHANS
Dunford said he had not been discussing the idea of a bridging force and had no concerns about the ability of Afghans to assume the lead for security this year, to provide security for elections next year and make the transition to full security control in 2014.
"Are there capability gaps that need to be addressed? Yes," Dunford told reporters at NATO headquarters. "Leadership issues, command and control issues, logistics issues. Frankly the systems, the processes, the institutions associated with an army. ... Those are all areas that we're working on."
Dunford said he did not see a need to define troop levels at the moment. "From a military perspective, I don't need specificity in numbers at this point," he said, adding he did not expect to get much more clarity on this point in the next couple of days.
He said the ministers would decide at what level the training of Afghans would take place, where the forces would be located throughout the country and which nations would be willing to provide troops and in what areas.
Dunford said Afghan forces were already leading nearly all operations against the Taliban insurgents, with NATO providing air support. The start of the fighting season had seen some intense combat, with Afghan forces taking heavy losses, including more than 100 deaths a week over the past two weeks.
"The challenges they've had against the Taliban, they've absolutely confronted those and not had an issue," Dunford said.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)