NATO looks to Mattis for Afghanistan plan


Pentagon chief Jim Mattis met NATO allies last Thursday to brief them on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as the alliance agreed to bolster troop numbers to help train local forces to contain a resurgent Taliban.

Members of the 29-member NATO are looking to Mattis for fresh insight about President Donald Trump's intentions in a war that has dragged on for nearly 16 years since 9/11 and one which even U.S. generals concede is a "stalemate" at best.

"I'll share with them our appreciation of the situation, assessment of the situation and talk about what we're doing in terms of framing the strategy and filling in any gaps left in the strategy," Mattis told reporters as he flew to Europe.

Diplomatic sources said an increase of up to 3,000 troops from the current number of 13,500 is under consideration, while US officials have said the number might be more like 4,000. NATO played the lead role in Afghan security from 2003 to the end of 2014, when it handed frontline duties to the Afghan military and took on its current advise-and-assist mission known as Resolute Support. But just over two years on, NATO commanders want more troops after recent gains by the Taliban, who have inflicted catastrophic losses on the struggling Afghan security forces. Such requests are stoking fears that NATO could get sucked back into the conflict just as it faces a host of new threats including Russia, terrorism and cyber attacks.

Stoltenberg confirmed that NATO would increase its troop numbers, though the soldiers would not be in combat. He said 15 countries had already pledged more contributions and he hoped for more, without giving a precise figure in either case.

"We don't think it's going to be peaceful and no conflicts and no violence there this year or next year or in the near future, but we believe that Afghans (are) ... determined and committed to fight Taliban and to stabilise their own country," Stoltenberg said. He also added that it was "not a wrong decision to end the NATO combat operation" in 2014, adding: "If anything, we should have done it before."

The extra troops could help bolster Afghan special forces, improve Kabul's air force to provide ground support and evacuations and step up officer training, the former Norwegian premier added.

U.S. troop levels 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.

British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said London would provide nearly 100 troops, on top of 500 already in Afghanistan. "We're in it for the long haul," Fallon told reporters.

Norwegian Defence Minister Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide said Norway had just prolonged its engagement in Afghanistan, adding that "we expect that other allies will also come around."

Mattis was due to brief allies later on Thursday, but Stoltenberg said he did not expect him to give specific troop numbers.

What we are "going to do is try to construct a capability that fills specific gaps, not just throws numbers against the wall," Mattis said.

Mattis, a retired Marine general who fought in Afghanistan, has stressed his new approach, due to be presented to Trump by the middle of July, will have a broader "regional" emphasis and not be beholden to any timelines. Trump has remained remarkably taciturn on Afghanistan, but this month gave Mattis authority to set troop numbers at whatever level he sees fit.

The U.S. president has pushed NATO to do more to counter terror and for the allies to increase defence spending to ease the burden on Washington.

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. Defence ministers discussed progress just as four "tripwire" battalions totalling some 4,000 troops complete their deployment in the three Baltic states and Poland.

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

Stoltenberg warned last Wednesday that NATO must also step up its defences against cyber attacks after 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 U.S.-led anti-IS coalition. Stoltenberg said he expected NATO would hold its next summit in Brussels in summer 2018.    (AFP)

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