ISTANBUL (Reuters) - U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates is pressing NATO allies to send up to 4,000 more trainers and mentors to prepare Afghanistan's army and police to begin taking over security next year, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The shortage of trainers and mentors has cast doubt on U.S. President Barack Obama's timetable for starting to hand over responsibility to Afghan forces so U.S. and allied troops can begin a gradual withdrawal from the country in July 2011.
"I call 2010 the year of maximum effort," said U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder.
"It is a year we are going to do everything we can so down the road we have to do less. ... The key here is the more we can accomplish in 2010 the more we can transition in 2011 and beyond, the more we can draw down," he told reporters.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates would appeal to NATO defence ministers meeting in Istanbul Thursday and Friday to "contribute their forces to this cause in as timely a manner as possible, just as we are."
Obama has ordered 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan with the aim of containing a widening Taliban insurgency while building up the strength of Afghan forces.
"We are in the midst of an expedited surge in the United States. He will implore them to act as quickly as they can to get their forces into the fight because time is of the essence," Morrell told reporters.
"We need to seize that window of opportunity that's been presented to us to shift the momentum on the ground in our favour and get the Afghan national security forces to the position they need to be to ultimately transition into a leadership role on the security side," he added.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the goal was to "fill that gap" as quickly as possible. The trainers and mentors are needed to grow Afghanistan's security forces to a target of 300,000 personnel in 2011.
"This is an immediate infusion of capability in order to reduce our requirements down the road," the senior official said. "The push will start today" and continue until a conference scheduled for February 23 for NATO member states to make concrete commitments, he said.
The U.S. official estimated about 1,500 to 1,700 instructors or trainers were still needed for the Afghan army and police.
On top of that, another 2,500 so-called mentors were needed, he said. That figure includes about 20 teams of mentors for Afghanistan's army and 120 teams for the police.
The official acknowledged that police training in Afghanistan has been a "haphazard effort." But he said a new structure was in place ensure it would more successful.
"Everybody understands the importance of training as the central effort," the senior U.S. official said.
"Everyone wants to see troop ... numbers going down. Everyone understands that only way we're going to have our troops go down is for Afghan capability to go up."
More than 110,000 foreign troops are now in Afghanistan. U.S. allies have pledged up to 9,000 troops on top of the additional troops committed by Obama.
NATO has long struggled to find enough trainers, particularly for the police, who are vital for creating the conditions to allow foreign forces to withdraw.
The European Union has promised to send 400 police trainers, but fewer than 300 have actually been committed since the launch of the mission in 2007, mostly due to safety concerns.
Reporting by Adam Entous; Editing by David Brunnstrom