NATO must remain focused on fostering stability in Afghanistan despite the protests and violence that have gripped the country following the burning of copies of the Koran on a NATO military base, the alliance's head said on Tuesday.
Despite the tragedy of this incident and the challenges we face, we must not lose sight of our goal, a stable Afghanistan. That is in all of our interest; that must remain the focus of our shared effort, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said during an alliance seminar in Washington.
The strategy of the United States and its NATO partners has been questioned in recent days, after the burning of copies of the Muslim holy book triggered widespread protests and two U.S. officers were killed in an attack that took place within the Afghan Interior Ministry.
Rasmussen's comments came as NATO officials prepare for a summit to be held in Chicago in May, which is expected to shed light on the West's course out of Afghanistan, where after more than 10 years of war the Taliban continues to pose a major threat and the government of President Hamid Karzai remains weak.
President Barack Obama has said he will withdraw the 33,000 extra troops he sent to Afghanistan in 2009-2010 by the fall, but his troop reduction plans beyond that remain unclear. Most foreign combat troops are due to be gone from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Crucial in the NATO strategy in Afghanistan will be standing up a capable local military and police. While Afghan forces are far larger than they were, they lack important capabilities and recent attacks by Afghans wearing security uniforms have raised questions about how Western soldiers will complete their training mission.
On Monday, U.S. officials said they would not swerve from plans to gradually shift into an advisory role despite the officers' deaths within the Interior Ministry, which prompted all NATO advisers to be pulled from ministries in Kabul.
Rasmussen said Afghan forces' management of protests triggered by the Koran burnings showed how much progress they had made.
(Reporting By Missy Ryan; Editing by Eric Beech)