US commanders in Afghanistan will have more authority to strike the Taliban, the US defense secretary has said. Ash Carter, who is on a surprise visit to Kabul, urged NATO to expand support in the war against extremists.
US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told reporters on Tuesday that the new powers given to General John Nicholson, who commands both the NATO-led Resolute Support mission and a separate US counterterrorism mission, would allow "much more efficient and effective use of the forces we have here as well as the Afghan forces."
"It obviously, to me, makes a lot more sense to be doing it the way we're doing it now," Carter said at a joint news conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the capital Kabul.
Carter's visit came just days after US President Barack Obama shelved plans to cut the US force in Afghanistan to 5,000 by the end of 2016, opting instead to keep 8,400 troops there through the close of his presidency in January next year.
The Taliban said the US decision would only prolong the war.
"What Obama could not do with 149,000 troops, he will not be able to do with 8,400 troops," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said on Twitter on July 6. "Our resolve is high and our determination is firm."
President Obama had earlier planned to drop troop levels from the current 9,800 to 5,500 by the end of the year
Obama went into the White House pledging to withdraw the US from Afghanistan's nearly 15-year conflict. However, in light of the Taliban's territorial gains, the US president urged his fellow NATO leaders in Warsaw last week to expand their support for the war against the Islamic movement.
Washington has also pledged to provide $3.5 billion (3.2 billion euros) annually to fund Afghan forces which are still in need of US and coalition support. The Afghan government in Kabul is expected to contribute as much as $500 million while NATO allies provide the remaining $1 billion.
'Resilient' Afghan troops
Carter also praised the "courageous" Afghan troops and expressed his country's confidence in them.
"The Afghan security forces have demonstrated the motivation, the will and the resilience in the face of a persistent enemy," Carter said. "I have confidence in the ability of the Afghan forces to provide for the stability and security that the Afghan people deserve, and I commend them for fighting courageously last year during a tough fighting season."
President Ghani welcomed the "environment of trust" between Washington and Kabul.
But Carter underlined that the Afghan government's anti-corruption drive "is central" to the continued US support for the war-torn country. The Afghan president said his government was working to remove corruption and undertake economic reforms.
Carter, who also met with Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, urged the leaders of the national unity government to work together.
Surge in violence
Last month, a deadly Taliban attack in Kabul killed more than 20 police cadets. The militant group has sustained its violent momentum since losing its leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, in May.
Meanwhile, militant group "Islamic State" (IS) is also expanding its activities in Afghanistan. According to media reports, hundreds of people in the eastern province of Nangarhar have been displaced after days of heavy fighting between IS jihadists and government troops earlier this month.
Both Carter and Ghani discussed the role of neighboring Pakistan in the battle against Islamic jihadists. Islamabad has long been accused of supporting militants, including some factions of the Taliban.
"Pakistan has a fundamental decision to make," said Ghani. "There is no difference between good and bad terrorists."
The Pentagon chief said the US would work with Pakistan "wherever it can" on extremism, but warned that Washington would "continue to target and strike terrorist leaders everywhere in the world."
shs/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters)