BRUSSELS: NATO foreign and defence ministers will huddle Wednesday to fine-tune their troop withdrawal from Afghanistan as a Taliban onslaught underscores the task remaining in ending the decade-old war.
The ministers will gather for two days of talks to lay the groundwork for a summit hosted by US President Barack Obama in Chicago on May 20-21 that will map out the troop pullout over the next two years and debate how to fund Afghan forces.
NATO officials insist that the number of attacks has come down in Afghanistan but a wave of coordinated attacks on Sunday, which left 51 people dead including 36 insurgents, highlighted the resiliency of Taliban militants.
NATO leaders agreed in the Portuguese capital to gradually hand over security responsibility to Afghan security forces, with the aim of completing the transition by the end of 2014.
Two years later, the alliance is in the process of withdrawing 130,000 troops from the increasingly unpopular war while debating how to pay for the Afghan security forces which will carry on the fight.
Training Afghans into a formidable force that can take on the Taliban on their own is key to a successful transition, and NATO officials say the fact they fought the Taliban alone on Sunday was proof of "impressive" progress.
Following the attacks, however, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has criticised some of the US tactics in the war, blamed intelligence failures on the part of Afghan forces "and especially" NATO.
NATO expects Afghan security forces to grow to 352,000 soldiers and police officers this year but the future size is under discussion.
A US plan foresees a reduction of the Afghan forces to 228,500 in 2017.
Allies are debating the price tag for the force, which is estimated to cost $4.1 billion per year. The United States is expected to pay $2.3 billion while its partners and the Afghan government would foot the rest of the bill.
The ministers will debate other thorny issues including a US-led missile shield being deployed across Europe that is irking Russia.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her 27 NATO allies will hold talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday but no progress is expected on negotiations to ease Moscow's concerns about the system.
NATO had hoped to invite Russia to its Chicago summit but Russian president-elect Vladimir Putin is not expected to attend. Alliance officials say a scheduling conflict prevents him from showing up.
Despite the standoff, NATO diplomats hold out hope for progress, noting that Russians are cooperating on other projects and are still willing to talk about playing a role in the missile shield. (AFP)