MUNICH -- Afghanistan's police force and army still need more training to handle the country's security on their own, making it critical for a new security agreement to be signed to allow international forces to remain after 2014, NATO's top two leaders said Saturday.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has so far refused to sign the security agreement that could allow some 10,000 U.S. troops and 6,000 troops from allied nations to stay in Afghanistan after the end of this year, largely to help train Afghan forces.
He has said he wants to wait until after the country elects his successor in a planned April 5 presidential election -- but if the agreement doesn't get signed, all international troops could leave by the end of 2014 in a so-called "zero option."
Speaking on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's military commander, said that even though Afghan forces have performed very well in the past year they still need more training, as envisioned in the post-2014 mission dubbed "Resolute Support."
Asked whether Afghan forces will be ready to take lone security responsibility at the end of this year, Breedlove said: "with 11 more months of training we'll be able to address many of their continuing challenges but no, there will be more challenges post-'14 and that is the raison d'etre for the Resolute Support mission."
NATO civilian leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance is planning for both eventualities -- remaining after 2014 or pulling out all troops -- but he thinks it is critical to remain.
"I have not used the term zero option, I think I have explicitly stressed that it's not an option, but that it might be an unfortunate outcome," he told a group of reporters.
He said he was "confident" the security agreement would be signed -- though likely by Karzai's successor and not by Karzai himself -- but said if it wasn't, it could create serious problems for Afghanistan.
"While we are confident the Afghan security forces will be able to take full responsibility by the end of 2014, we also believe that they need continued training advice and assistance," he said.
If American and NATO troops pulled out, he said, it would be difficult to continue to get the financial aid needed to support the Afghanistan military and police from Western nations.
"350,000 Afghan soldiers and police go well beyond the financial capacity of the Afghan government so they will need international financial assistance to pay salaries," he said.
"If they don't get that assistance how can they afford to pay salaries?," he asked. "In that case the Afghan security forces will really be faced with serious challenges."
Fogh Rasmussen cautioned that, as Afghanistan gears up for the presidential vote, there likely will be more "spectacular attacks" by the Taliban -- "attacks that primarily aim at making headlines."
"It's part of their strategy to try to depict Afghanistan as an instable, insecure country," he said.
"Having said that, it's also important to understand that those attacks ... do not change the military situation in Afghanistan, they do not change the strategic situation."