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Secure Afghan gains, NATO chief says

Feb. 21, 2013 at 12:02 PM

BRUSSELS, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- NATO defense leaders need to address ways to ensure gains made by Afghan national forces are secured, the secretary-general said Thursday from Brussels.

NATO defense ministers arrived this week in Brussels for a two-day conference on defense priorities. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the international mission in Afghanistan is the largest for the alliance.

The International Security Assistance Force next year start wrapping up its mission as Afghan forces assume greater security responsibility. A report this week from the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said that while civilians continue to fall victim to insurgent attacks, the number of war-related deaths is declining.

Rasmussen said Afghan forces are in charge of security in more than 80 percent of the populated areas of the country.

"Later this year, they will start taking the security lead right across the country, and ISAF's main effort will shift from combat to support," Rasmussen said.

With U.S. lawmakers grappling over looming defense cuts and European government struggling with sovereign debt burdens, Rasmussen said a coordinated defense was the best way forward for the alliance.

"In this time of austerity, it is essential that nations get the most value for taxpayers' money," he said. "Working together is the best way of ensuring this."

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