By Alexandra Hudson
BERLIN (Reuters) - NATO is at its most cohesive yet, its new commander said, but must ensure that spending cuts do not erode the power of an alliance facing tasks as diverse as a new training mission in Afghanistan and protecting Turkey's border with Syria.
Many European countries have slashed defense spending since the 2008 financial crisis. Apart from the United States, Greece, Britain and Estonia, no member has met NATO's goal of spending 2 percent of economic output on defense.
U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who took the role of NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe in March and who also heads the U.S. European Command, said one of his immediate goals was to uphold gains made by NATO over the last decade through joint training and deployment.
"Right now we are at the height of our ability to operate together, our cohesiveness is high, our tactics, techniques and procedures are as good as they have ever been," he said in a telephone interview with Reuters.
"My concern is that we do not lose the edge... clearly we need the budget to do that, so we are emphasizing with our NATO partners that defense spending is important," he said, citing the need to maintain joint education, training and standards.
The United States has also made military cuts and last year said it would reduce its troop numbers in Europe, while boosting training of European partners. The soldiers of more than 50 countries have passed through the giant U.S. training base in Grafenwoehr in southern Germany.
NATO is due to end combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and leave a smaller training and advisory mission known as "Resolute Support". It has not yet spelled out how many troops will stay on, with several members waiting for the United States to announce its own commitment before making pledges.
"Individually some of the nations are doing bilateral consultations...," said Breedlove. "Clearly it would be nice to have absolute definition right now, but it is not critical ... we have some time in order to properly draw down."
Asked about a so-called "zero option" of the United States withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan, Breedlove said: "The zero option has been discussed. It is part of the discussions and negotiations that are going on at this point, but what our President and Secretary of Defense have made clear is that we are committed to Afghanistan post-2014."
Breedlove named failing states, restive populations, and "ungoverned spaces" as the key issues facing the world.
"We have to be prepared for everything from counter-insurgency all the way to the more conventional defensive or offensive fights that NATO's history was more centered on."
"It is really important that we stay connected in our efforts and investments so we .. have the full range to offer whether it is to a coalition-led, United Nations-led, European Union-led or NATO-led operation."
(Reporting by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Alistair Lyon)