NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday the situation in Afghanistan is improving after a difficult year.
In a speech to a two-day NATO meeting about the war, Fogh Rasmussen echoed the assessment of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander there, who said Thursday the security conditions in Afghanistan are no longer "deteriorating."
Both men were addressing bleak assessments from other nations that the Taliban are expanding in the region and the situation in Afghanistan has turned explosive.
NATO unofficially estimates the number of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan has grown from fewer than 400 in 2004 to about 25,000 last year and nearly 30,000 now.
That has led other officials and analysts to say the Taliban are now waging a war of attrition against the international forces and Afghan government troops.
McChrystal said Taliban has made strides in recent months and he is "not prepared to say we've turned a corner." Even so, he said the Afghan government and U.S. forces are making enough progress to leave him more optimistic about the war than he was last summer, when he declared it was backsliding.
Fogh Rasmussen said allied forces are on the way to seize the initiative in the nine-year war. "After a difficult year in 2009, we now see a new momentum in 2010 and it has already started," he told the alliance's 28 defense ministers meeting in Istanbul, including U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "There is no doubt that 2010 will be a challenging year."
Both Fogh Rasmussen and McChrystal have urged NATO ministers to send several thousand new army and police instructors to Afghanistan to enable government forces to assume more responsibility for the country's security.
France agreed at the meeting to send up to 100 new instructors for that purpose, French embassy spokewoman Stephanie Prunier said.
Major world powers decided last week to boost Afghanistan's military to 171,600 by October 2011, up from the current 98,000 troops. They also decided to increase police numbers to 134,000 by that date, from about 90,000 today.
In the past, Afghan forces — characterized by high desertion rates and low morale — have performed poorly in the war, prompting critics to question the feasibility of allied plans to significantly expand them.
"This is also the year that we should see Afghanistan's future take shape, when it starts to stand on its own feet for its own security," Fogh Rasmussen said.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who also addressed the ministers at the NATO meeting, said the training and equipping of Afghan security forces would facilitate the departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan "when the time comes."
In a related development that may free up additional forces for Afghanistan, he said that the alliance is considering further reducing its peacekeeping force in Kosovo.
NATO diplomats in Brussels have said the plan is to reduce the contingent to less than 4,000 in 2011, with the ultimate goal of reducing the alliance's troop commitments in foreign missions not directly related to the Afghan war. Fogh Rasmussen said defense ministers are discussing "next steps" for the Kosovo force, which was reduced from 14,000 to 10,000 soldiers in 2009.
"We have seen considerable progress (in Kosovo) over the last 12 months," he said.
In 1999, NATO waged a brief war against Serbia which was fighting ethnic Albanian separatists in the region. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008, but Serbia and its allies consider the move illegal.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Istanbul and Washington correspondent Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.
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