A top NATO official said Tuesday that the alliance was committed to helping Afghanistan's military "for the longer term," hinting that if some countries opt out, others will take their place.
French air force Gen. Sephan Abrial, who leads the alliance's modernization efforts, added that contributing to Kabul's defense needs beyond the 2014 withdrawal date set for most coalition forces doesn't necessarily mean NATO's troops will be in combat, or even in the country.
"It's important that the nations that are acting in Afghanistan stay there with their Afghan friends for the longer term," Abrial said during a Tuesday breakfast meeting with defense reporters in Washington. "If they stay, it doesn't mean physically stay in a combat situation where their forces are, it means continued working with our Afghan partners."
But the general painted a failure to stay by Kabul's side in grim terms.
"Every one of the [NATO] nations understands that … not continuing our commitment, our partnership after  could jeopardize this achievement."
Abrial added that long-term NATO missions could include continued military and police training, as well as support to counter roadside bombs.
Abrial's comments come as NATO prepares to debate what its long-term commitment will look like beyond 2014 during a May 20 summit in Chicago. The meeting has been overshadowed by economic and political turmoil among many of the alliance's most powerful members, including France, which elected a new Socialist president who's called for the withdrawal of French forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2012.
At a Monday press conference in Kabul, NATO spokesman German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson highlighted France's earlier pledge to keep by Afghanistan's side.
"France has committed itself very clearly in one of the first strategic partnership agreements with Afghanistan to a long-term commitment way beyond 2014," he said.
Steering clear of naming France specifically, Abrial said that while the decision to deploy troops for an Afghan mission is up to individual countries, the 28-nation alliance overall sees that keeping a close partnership with Afghanistan well beyond 2014 is important.
"Whether they want to stay, how long they want to stay is a sovereign decision," Abrial said. "We in NATO will accommodate what other nations want to do. The important aspect is that all the nations stay involved in Afghanistan doing the missions that they can do."