Citing steady improvement in security conditions, NATO defense ministers decided Thursday that the time has come for a phased downsizing of troop levels in Kosovo.

Though timelines and troop numbers were not specified, defense ministers concurred that the 15,000-strong NATO peacekeeping force — which includes around 1,400 Americans — should transition into a smaller "deterrent presence." Future troop levels will be decided by the North Atlantic Council, NATO said in a press release Thursday afternoon. The council is made up of representatives of member countries and has decision-making powers.

While the first day of the two-day conference centered on Kosovo, the agenda shifts on Friday as U.S. officials are expected to once again push for more troop support from NATO allies in Afghanistan.

At NATO’s summit in Strasbourg-Kehl in April, European partners agreed to send some 5,000 additional troops to help ensure the safety of Afghan voters during this summer’s presidential election. But they stopped short of agreeing to keep those forces in place beyond the August vote.

Ivo H. Daalder, America’s new ambassador to NATO, earlier this week stressed the need for increased troop support beyond election day.

"NATO’s mission does not stop with the elections," Daalder said during a pre-conference speech in Brussels. "This is not a U.S. exercise that we have asked others to join; this is a NATO mission, and we expect others — Europeans, Canadians, and partners — to contribute their fair share."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Brussels for meetings with his European counterparts. Other issues under consideration include NATO’s counter-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia.

Afghanistan, where the U.S. is nearly doubling its troop commitment this year, continues to be the primary focus for NATO. European leaders for years have resisted making more substantial troop commitments because of the war’s unpopularity.

NATO officials say without more commitments from partner nations, the Afghanistan effort runs the risk of being stamped an American mission as more U.S. troops move in.

"We need to avoid a situation in which the operation is unbalanced politically," said James Appathurai, NATO spokesman, during a pre-conference briefing on Monday.

"[The U.S. increase] is something we need to welcome, but we also need to ensure that there is balance in terms of contribution to this mission, because if there is an imbalance, it is politically more difficult to sustain," Appathurai continued. "But also it’s simply in terms of equitable burden-sharing and fairness, we would like to see the European allies doing as much as they can."

Meanwhile, NATO’s Standing NATO Maritime Group One, which has been involved in maritime security operations off the coast of Somalia since March, also was under review Thursday.

The NATO mission will expire on June 28 and defense ministers are examining whether to extend the mission.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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