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By Jonathon Burch
KABUL (Reuters) - NATO took command of the training of the Afghan army and police on Saturday to consolidate efforts on building an effective security force, a vital precondition for the withdrawal of foreign troops.
The existing U.S. training mission, CSTC-A, until now responsible for most of the training, is to merge with the new "NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan" (NTM-A), under a single NATO command, commanders said on Saturday at a ceremony in Kabul.
Deputy Commander of the new NATO mission Major General Michael Ward said he believed the move would encourage more NATO training personnel to be sent to Afghanistan, helping to speed the expansion of local forces.
"I'm very optimistic. We've identified what our needs are and we're bringing those back to NATO to get nations to contribute and we've already seen in this run-up, a significant number of people coming in with exactly the right skills," Ward told Reuters.
There are some 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including 68,000 Americans, fighting the Taliban that has spread its insurgency from the south and east of the country into previously peaceful areas.
At present there are about 95,000 Afghan soldiers and about 93,000 police.
In his assessment of the war, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army General Stanley McChrystal, has recommended local security forces be eventually raised to a total of 400,000 soldiers and police.
Ward said the immediate aim was to increase the army to 134,000 and the police force to 96,800 by October 2010.
U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether to send up a further 40,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, which McChrystal, says he needs.
Military commanders believe the foreign troops can ultimately only buy time before the Afghan army and police force are expanded. Only when they are able to provide security for themselves will foreign troops be able to leave.
(Editing by Matthew Jones)