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LONDON (Reuters) - The struggling effort to defeat the Taliban and bring security to Afghanistan means it is time for a "frank discussion" about the future of NATO, Canada's defense minister said on Monday.
In comments that are likely to aggravate some NATO partners, Peter MacKay told an audience in London that all alliance members needed to pull their weight otherwise the 60-year-old security pact faced an existential crisis.
"We need to have a frank discussion about the future of NATO," MacKay told the Royal Institute of International Affairs, known as Chatham House, while underlining that Canada, a founder member, remained committed to the organization.
"The U.S. re-emphasis on the mission in Afghanistan -- with the commitment of more troops, more development, more diplomacy -- has brought a predictable sigh of relief from some around the alliance," he said, suggesting some members saw it as a chance to sit back and say 'it's okay, the Americans will handle it'.
"As the United States says, its contribution is designed to reinforce, not to replace ... We all need to maintain our collective effort so that we maximize the official contribution from the United States," he said.
NATO defense ministers are due to meet in Krakow, Poland, for informal meetings on February 19-20. MacKay said he would use the meeting to hammer home the importance of all 26 members fulfilling their obligations to the organization.
In the past, criticism like MacKay's has been a veiled reference to the need for Germany, France and other major NATO states to step up contributions, bringing them into line with those made by Britain, Italy, Canada and the United States.
MacKay did not name names, however, merely saying that unless there was a more unified, coordinated response across the alliance, the 8-year operation in Afghanistan risked failure.
"Afghanistan tests the ability of the alliance to execute its most basic mission in the 21st century and in a global context," he said.
"If NATO cannot deter or defeat the real physical threat facing alliance members, and indeed contribute to the building of security for the larger international community, then we have to ask ourselves, what is NATO for?"
Addressing specific problems, MacKay said that as well as forces on the ground -- Canada contributes 2,800 soldiers to the 70,000-strong international force -- NATO allies needed to train more Afghan security forces, engage Pakistan and regional players such as Iran, and urge the Afghan government to pull its weight in combating corruption, among other goals.
Afghanistan is due to hold a presidential election in August, when President Hamid Karzai's faltering popularity -- both among Afghans and internationally -- will be tested.
MacKay said he expected the elections to be free and fair, but said that did not mean Afghanistan was suddenly a democracy.
"I predict with confidence that we will have more successful elections," he said. "But what we are not going to have is a Westminster-style democracy in Afghanistan," he said, referring to the British parliament.