ANTALYA, Turkey (Reuters) - NATO will keep some troops in Afghanistan even after its current training mission ends around the end of next year, the alliance said on Wednesday, in a signal of support for Afghan security forces struggling to repel a Taliban offensive.
Afghan government forces, now largely without foreign military support, have suffered heavy casualties this year battling the Taliban, who have expanded their attacks to the north from their traditional southern and eastern strongholds.
“Today we agreed that we will maintain a presence in Afghanistan even after the end of our current mission,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference during a meeting of alliance foreign ministers in Turkey.
Concern over the Afghan forces’ strength was renewed by their battle to oust hundreds of militants -- helped by foreigners -- from the outskirts of the northern provincial capital of Kunduz for the past two weeks.
The new NATO mission, expected to be smaller than the current 12,000-strong training operation, will be civilian-led and include both soldiers and civilians, Stoltenberg said.
It will “advise and instruct” Afghan security bodies, he said.
At the 2011 peak, around 130,000 foreign troops were in Afghanistan. NATO pulled out most of its combat troops last year, leaving around 12,000 troops to train local soldiers and police in a mission expected to end at the end of 2016.
Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, who met the NATO foreign ministers, said they also discussed future financial assistance for the Afghan security forces.
“This was one of the biggest assurances coming from the NATO countries to Afghanistan, that in the coming years they would ... strengthen the Afghan national defence and security forces,” he told a news conference.
U.S. officials said in March that the United States would keep funding Afghan security forces at a peak level of 352,000 personnel at least until 2017, at a cost of about $4 billion annually.
The United States and other donors have committed to funding Afghan forces at least until 2017. A 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw is due to decide how to help pay for them after that.
“We have got to sustain the substantial international financial support for the Afghan national security forces or they simply won’t be able to pay their salaries. This is not an army that is going to hang together cost-free,” U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute said last Friday.
Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Larry King