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Pentagon chief briefed NATO on US strategy in Afghanistan

30 June, 2017

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BRUSSELS: Pentagon chief Jim Mattis met North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies on Thursday to brief them on the United States’ strategy in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the head of the alliance of 29 member states said it would bolster troop numbers in Afghanistan to help train local forces fighting a resurgent Taliban insurgency.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said he did not expect Mattis to give specific troop numbers.

NATO members are looking to Mattis for fresh insight on US President Donald Trump’s intentions in a war that has dragged on for nearly 16 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Even US generals have conceded that at best the Afghan war has been a ‘stalemate’.

“I’ll share with them [NATO] our assessment of the situation and also talk about our strategy including what we are doing to fill in any gaps left so far,” Mattis told reporters before as he flew to Europe to attend the NATO meeting.

“What we are going to do is to try to construct a capability that fills specific gaps, not just throws numbers against the wall,” Mattis was reported as having said.

Diplomatic sources said that the NATO was considering increasing its troops in Afghanistan by another 3,000. Though, the US officials estimated the number of additional troops in consideration to be more than 4,000. Currently, the alliance has 13,500 troops stationed in the war-torn country.

NATO had played the lead role in Afghan security from 2003 to 2014, when it handed frontline duties to the Afghan military and took on its current advice-and-assist mission known as Resolute Support. But just over two years into the new arrangement, NATO commanders now seek more troops in view of recent gains made by Taliban fighters and catastrophic losses inflicted by the latter on the struggling Afghan security forces.

Requests for additional troops have stoked fears that NATO could get sucked back into the Afghan conflict just as it faces a host of new threats including Russia, non-state terrorism and cyber-attacks.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that the alliance would increase troop numbers but said that these forces would not be engaged in combat. He said 15 countries had already pledged more contributions and he hoped for more countries to make pledges in coming days. “We have to understand this is about training, assistance, advice...,” he said, adding that extra troops would not conduct combat operations. Instead, they would help bolster the capability of the Afghan Special Forces, improve Kabul’s Air Force’s capability to provide ground support and undertake evacuations, and step up officer training, the former Norwegian premier said.

Meanwhile, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said London would provide additional 100 troops, on top of the 500 already present in Afghanistan. “We’re in it for the long haul,” he said.

Norwegian Defence Minister Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide said her country had just prolonged its engagement in Afghanistan. “We expect that other allies will also come around and give the same contributions and match our commitments,” she said.

Mattis, a retired Marine general who has fought in Afghanistan, has stressed that his new approach to be presented to Donald Trump by the mid of July will have a broader ‘regional’ emphasis, and it will not be beholden to any timelines.

Trump has remained remarkably taciturn on Afghanistan, but this month he gave Mattis authority to set troop numbers at whatever level the latter saw fit. The US president has pushed NATO to do more to counter terrorism and urged allies to increase defence spending to ease the burden on Washington.

US troop levels in Afghanistan had peaked at around 100,000 under Barack Obama, who later embarked on a steady drawdown aiming to completely end America’s combat role in the country.

A More Assertive Moscow: Stung into action by Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, NATO has embarked on its biggest military build-up since the end of the Cold War to face a more assertive Moscow. Against this backdrop, defence ministers also discussed progress on the Baltic front just as four ‘tripwire’ battalions totalling some 4,000 troops complete their deployment in three Baltic states and Poland.

In a statement to mark the event, the four countries and four lead NATO nations – Britain, Canada, Germany and the United States – said that the battle groups were ‘ready and able to deter and, if necessary, immediately respond to any aggression’.

On Wednesday, Stoltenberg had stated that NATO must also step up its defences against cyber attacks after the ransomware hackers caused chaos worldwide. The global terror threat, highlighted by the Islamic State group, also figures high on the ministers’ agenda after NATO leaders agreed at a summit last month to join the US-led anti-IS coalition.

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