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NATO chief affirms Afghan transition plan

But the secretary general insists that the pace of transition be based on security conditions on the ground.

NATO's top official Tuesday expressed confidence that U.S.-led military forces will succeed against the Taliban in Afghanistan and agreed with President Obama's view that the coalition could begin a "gradual transition" to Afghan security forces next summer.

But NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted that the pace of transition had to be based on security conditions on the ground, and he repeatedly said transition does not mean alliance forces will leave Afghanistan before the country can protect itself.

"July 2011 will be a transition point. That doesn't mean an exit" of NATO troops, Rasmussen said during a breakfast with reporters.

The former Danish prime minister said a strategy for transition in Afghanistan would be discussed at the NATO summit in November. That summit also would craft a strategic concept to shape the alliance's security strategy for the 21st century to deal with the new threats that include cyber attacks, terrorism and missiles.

To address that last threat, Rasmussen predicted NATO members would approve creation of a ballistic missile defense system that would expand on Obama's "phased adaptive approach" to build a land- and sea-based defense in Europe against Iranian missiles.

Rasmussen's insistence on a conditions-based transition in Afghanistan mirrors the views of U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of American and alliance forces, who has said Obama's promise to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011 did not mean a rush to the exits.

Rasmussen presented an optimistic appraisal of security conditions in Afghanistan, saying two-thirds of the county is experiencing "very little fighting" and a lot of development. He conceded that there is "tough fighting" in the southern and eastern parts of the country, but said with the nearly completed build-up of U.S. and alliance troops, the Taliban "cannot win."

"NATO will never allow the Taliban to regain control," he said.

The NATO leader noted that while the United States was adding 30,000 troops, NATO members had committed 7,000 more. He expressed concern that Americans "don't see international forces also pulling their weight," even though they supply one-third of the troops and have sustained one-third of the casualties.

Alliance troops also are deeply involved in the effort to build up Afghan security forces to 300,000 by October 2011, he said.

Rasmussen said the November summit would embrace a NATO missile defense system that would build on its current theater defense to shield deployed forces against tactical missiles. He said a system that could protect all of Western Europe could be achieved at an additional cost of 200 million euros.

The new defense system would be based on NATO's command structure and the U.S. anti-missile assets "would be considered an input to the NATO system," he added.

Rasmussen also said NATO would invite Russia to join in the missile defense program, although Moscow repeatedly has rebuffed similar offers from Obama.

Asked about Defense Secretary Robert Gates' drive for efficiencies in U.S. defense programs, Rasmussen said he was committed to seeing similar steps within NATO.

But without commenting on Gates' plan to close the Joint Forces Command -- which has been vigorously opposed by Virginia's congressional delegation -- Rasmussen said he did not believe NATO would move the Allied Command Transformation center, which is part of the Norfolk-based U.S. command.