WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The economic crisis may make NATO members consider pulling out of operations in Afghanistan, a top NATO commander said Friday, as U.S. President-elect Barack Obama prepares to press allies to send more troops.

Asked whether the global slump would affect participation by allies, U.S. Army Gen. John Craddock, the alliance's operational commander, said, "It will increase the risk that they won't be able to stay longer."

Craddock, speaking to reporters at a breakfast, said budget problems could have an impact on alliance operations in the Balkans and the Mediterranean Sea as well. "We are going to have some hard times ahead and it's going to impact... the ability of nations to stay in operations," he said.

He said NATO members were looking for cutbacks in defense budgets, many of which were already under pressure before economic problems mounted last year.

The United States has long pressed its European allies to send more combat troops to Afghanistan, where U.S. and NATO forces are facing the highest level of violence since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban regime.

Obama, who takes office on Jan. 20, is widely expected to ask the allies to increase their contribution to the NATO force of more than 50,000 troops.

Craddock said NATO faced "a security stalemate" against insurgents in southern Afghanistan, although he denied Western forces were losing a nationwide battle against militants.

"But we're not winning fast enough," he said, adding that NATO would likely have to keep a large force in Afghanistan for "at least a decade" and a presence of some kind "for decades".

Obama vowed during his election campaign to convince NATO allies to increase their troop contributions to Afghanistan.

"The nations are expecting a call for greater contributions. But we have to temper that with the financial downturn, this economic situation," Craddock said.

"They're expecting to be asked to do more. I think it's going to be harder for them to do it because of decreasing defense budgets."

NATO has contingency plans for the Netherlands to end its combat mission next year and for Canada to do so in 2011, he said.

But Craddock said the danger would be a sudden and unexpected withdrawal by other NATO partners. "Then we'll have a problem," he said.

U.S. officials have long expressed open frustration that alliance members have not provided more troops and are moving to nearly double the 32,000-strong U.S. military presence.

About 14,000 U.S. troops serve under NATO's International Security Assistance Force.

The Pentagon hopes to deploy at least 13,000 more forces by early summer to combat Afghanistan's intensifying insurgency.

A U.S. Army combat brigade of about 3,500 troops is deploying this month and will be followed in the spring by a combat aviation brigade of about 2,800 soldiers.

The Pentagon is also working to send two Army brigades, or an equivalent force including Marines, totaling about 7,000 troops, by late spring.

The U.S. build-up could grow to include as many as 30,000 troops over the next 12 to 18 months, officials have said.

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