US Defense Secretary makes surprise visit to Afghanistan

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter Visits Irbil, Northern Iraq
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter Visits Irbil, Northern Iraq

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan, Dec 18 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrived in Afghanistan on Friday for meetings with U.S. troops and military commanders and Afghan officials facing an insurgency that has inflicted growing numbers of casualties on hard-pressed security forces.

Carter was set to meet personnel at a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan, near the city of Jalalabad in Nangarhar province, where about 600 U.S. troops are stationed. The base, called Operating Base Fenty, is a hub for training, logistics, and counter-terrorism efforts across eastern Afghanistan.

In a report to the U.S. Congress released this week, the Pentagon painted a grim picture of the security situation in Afghanistan, finding that from the beginning of the year to mid-November, there were 27 percent more high-profile attacks in the capital city of Kabul compared with the same period last year.

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Afghan national defense and security forces also had 27 percent more casualties from the beginning of 2015 up to mid-November compared with the same period last year, the Pentagon found.

Recent setbacks include the brief fall of the northern city of Kunduz to the Taliban, a months-long struggle in Helmand province and an insurgent raid on the airport in the southern city of Kandahar last week that killed 50 civilians, police and security personnel.

Carter's visit to Nangahar highlights the emerging threat from a branch of Islamic State, a militant group that has seized swathes of territory in Iraq, and Syria, which this year conducted attacks against Afghan security forces in Nangarhar.

The group competes with the Taliban for territory and recruits, U.S. officials assess.

"It is a new dynamic in this insurgency," a senior U.S. defense official said on Friday.

"It's really important to ... stay on top of and monitor and deter any kind of threat that actually could emerge from what is a relatively nascent element in the overall insurgency."

In mid-October, President Barack Obama reversed plans to reduce U.S. troops to a small protection force in Kabul, saying he would prolong the U.S. military engagement by maintaining a force of 9,800 through most of 2016.

The U.S. troops have dual missions of training and advising Afghan security forces and conducting counter-terrorism operations.

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