US Defense Secretary makes surprise visit to Afghanistan

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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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US Defense Secretary makes surprise visit to Afghanistan
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - JULY 21: U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter waves as he boards a C-17 military aircraft at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, July 21, 2015, en route to a Jordanian Air Base. Carter is meeting with Jordanian troops and coalition officials involved in the fight against the Islamic State. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster - Pool/Getty Images)
AMMAN, JORDAN - JULY 22: U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (2nd R) is greeted by Jordanian Armed Forces, Gen. Mashal al-Zaben, Special Advisor to his Majesty the King for Military Affairs and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (R) and members of the Jordanian Armed Forces as he arrives at the Jordan Armed Forces General Headquarters July 22, 2015 in Amman, Jordan. Carter is on a week long tour of the Middle East focused on reassuring allies about Iran and assessing progress in the coalition air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster-Pool/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - JUNE 11: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (2nd L) and Gen. Fan Changlong (L), Vice Chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission of People's Liberation Army, listen to the U.S. national anthem as they participate in an honor cordon June 11, 2015 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Secretary Carter held the honor cordon to welcome Vice Chairman Fan to visit the Pentagon. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 07: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks to the media during a briefing at the Pentagon May 7, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. Secretary Carter talked about various issues including the situation in the Middle East and the Department of Defense budget request. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MARCH 11: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (L) and the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Defense Michael Fallon hold a news conference at the Pentagon March 11, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia. Carter and Fallon held a bi-lateral meeting to discuss many topics, including the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and their countries' continued work to help the Ukraine government forces improve their capabilities in intelligence, communications, logistics and first aid. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
CAMP ARIFJAN, KUWAIT - FEBRUARY 23: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks to troops during a question-and-answer session at Camp Arifjan on February 23, 2015 in Kuwait. Carter will chair a meeting on Monday of senior U.S. military officers and diplomats on the fight against the Islamic State group. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 21: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (C) is greeted with a military honor cordon as he arrives to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace on February 21, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since he was sworn in. He will also meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 21: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (L) sits down to a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) at the Presidential Palace on February 21, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since he was sworn in. He will also meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 21: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (2nd L) is greeted with a military honor cordon as he arrives to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace on February 21, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since he was sworn in. He will also meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 21: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (L) meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) at the Presidential Palace on February 21, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since he was sworn in. He will also meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 21: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (center left) is greeted with a military honor cordon as he arrives to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace on February 21, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since he was sworn in. He will also meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - FEBRUARY 21: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (L) sits down to a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (R) at the Presidential Palace on February 21, 2015 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Carter is making his first trip to visit troops and commanders in Afghanistan since he was sworn in. He will also meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense Nominee Ash Carter (L) and Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) speaks before a meeting on Capitol Hill January 22, 2015 in Washington, DC. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and Secretary of Defense Nominee Ash Carter met to discuss Ash's nomination. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense Nominee Ash Carter arrives for a meeting on Capitol Hill January 22, 2015 in Washington, DC. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and Secretary of Defense Nominee Ash Carter met to discuss Ash's nomination. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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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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