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US prepares for tough fight, long stay in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON: US Defence Secretary Ash Carter has warned that 2016 would be a tough fighting season in Afghanistan while his new commander called for an “enduring commitment” to the war-torn country.

“Now, it’s going to be tough, there’s no question about it … we’re expecting a tough fighting season ahead,” he said.

Secretary Carter’s warning, given at a Thursday afternoon news briefing at the Pentagon, came hours after the proposed new US military chief for Afghanistan agreed with the lawmakers who do not want Washington to recall its troops from that country.

“We do need to think about an enduring commitment to the Afghans,” Lt. Gen. John Nicholson told his confirmation hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Gen. Nicholson said the plan for a long-term US military commitment was part of President Obama’s policy shift that allowed for the retention of 5,500 troops beyond his presidency.

Secretary Carter said he had also shared his concerns about 2016 being a “tough fighting season” with Afghan leaders.

He said that he had met President Ashraf Ghani last week. “He fully understands that, as does the CEO, (Abdullah) Abdullah.”

At the Senate hearing, Republican lawmakers, who dominate both chambers of Congress, urged the US administration to think about a decades-long military deployment in Afghanistan, like in Germany and South Korea.

President Obama wanted to withdraw all US troops from the country before ending his term in December this year. But in October 2015, he agreed to keep thousands of troops there into 2017. Currently, the US has 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, both for training and assist missions and for counter-terrorism operations.

Lt. Gen. Nicholson told the Senate committee that a long-term US commitment was also needed to deal with “trans-national terrorist organisations like the militant Islamic State (IS) group and Al Qaeda who now had a noticeable presence in Afghanistan.

Their presence requires an increase in US counter-terrorism capabilities too, he added. He pointed out that the end of US-led combat operations had contributed to a lack of air support for the Afghan troops combating the Taliban.

Asked to comment on Lt. Gen. Nicholson’s statement, Secretary Carter said the US was strengthening the capabilities of Afghan security forces and expected them to be “much stronger this season than they were last season”.

Asked if the US military now needed to take a more direct role in combating the Taliban, Secretary Carter said that present rules of engagement “allow us to do what we think needs to be done”.

He noted that President Obama had recently adjusted plans for US military engagement in Afghanistan and “you can expect that that will occur in the future as well”.

Secretary Carter said that President Obama had also indicated his willingness to do so.

“The president has made a commitment, and all the coalition members have to stick with Afghanistan. That’s not just for the year 2016. It’s the year 2017 and beyond,” he said.

Asked if the US was willing to keep its troops in Afghanistan for decades, Mr Carter said: “I don’t know about decades, but I’ll tell you one very positive thing about a presence in that part of the world. Here we have a government that welcomes a presence by the United States.”

He said that having a friend and a military partner in Afghanistan in the long run was a good outcome, “just like we have with so many other countries around the world, very positive military-to-military relationships.”

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