By Amie Ferris-Rotman
KABUL (Reuters) - NATO expects a decision by the middle of this year on the size of a training force to be kept in Afghanistan once most foreign troops leave in 2014, alliance Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Monday.
The Pentagon has said a NATO-led training force of between 8,000 and 12,000 was under consideration.
Questions remain over how well Afghan security forces being built up by NATO will be able to tackle Islamist Taliban insurgents in the face of intensifying violence and how Western states can justify financial support for a force that has been saddled with accusations of torture by the United Nations.
"It takes some time to stand up a new training mission, of course, and we will need the clarification within the next few months," Rasmussen told Reuters after talks with President Hamid Karzai in the Afghan capital Kabul.
"I would expect it (the size of the force) to be finalized very soon because we also need to start planning," he said.
Many Afghans eagerly await a firm decision on the number of foreign troops who will stay in their country once NATO's military operation officially ends at the end of next year.
"President Karzai assured me today that Afghanistan wants a NATO-led training mission to stay, to train, to give advice, to assist the Afghan security forces after 2014," Rasmussen said of the training mission, which is called "Resolute Support".
An earlier suggestion of a "zero option" by White House officials - a complete U.S. withdrawal after 2014 - spooked some Afghan lawmakers, who warned this could lead to full civil war.
But troop numbers are also politically sensitive in many NATO countries where voters have tired of the increasingly unpopular and costly 12-year war against Taliban insurgents.
U.S. President Barack Obama said last month that 34,000 troops, about half of the U.S. force now in Afghanistan, would withdraw by early 2014. At its peak, there were around 130,000 foreign troops in the country, most of them American.
The United States and its NATO allies are helping increase the size of the Afghan security forces to a targeted 352,000, a number they are fast approaching. Rasmussen said they now provide security for about 87 percent of the population.
NATO and its allies, which fund Afghan security forces, had planned to trim their number to 230,000 after 2015, but Rasmussen said the Western alliance is now considering "keeping the high level a bit longer than expected".
When Soviet forces left Afghanistan in 1989 after a decade-long war, financial aid dried up and the Afghan government collapsed, leading to fighting between warlords and a civil war paving the way to the 1996 rise to power of the radical Taliban.
Western military intervention toppled the Taliban in 2001 following al Qaeda's September 11 attacks on the United States.
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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