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Brace for more Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, NATO chief says

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a North Atlantic Council meeting at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Nov. 8, 2017. (Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr/Department of Defense)
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NATO’s top official warned Wednesday that security conditions could worsen in Afghanistan, where casualty rates have increased in a war that is now in its 18th year.

“It may actually become worse before it gets better in Afghanistan,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after two days of talks with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.

Attacks by the Taliban could increase in an attempt by the militants to strengthen their hand at the negotiating table, Stoltenberg said.

However, coalition leaders have warned that the pace of casualties among Afghan security forces is unsustainable. Since 2015, more than 28,000 Afghan police and soldiers have been killed in combat. The U.S. also has experienced more casualties in Afghanistan this year — 14 Americans have died in the country in 2018.

Stoltenberg acknowledged Afghanistan faces “many problems.” “We see violence. We see casualties,” he said.

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On Tuesday, frustration over the war was apparent during a Senate hearing in Washington, where the nominee to serve as the next head of U.S. Central Command was grilled by lawmakers over the state of the war.

Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. said he couldn’t forecast when the 17-year-old mission would end and U.S. troops could return home. Without U.S. support, Afghan forces would likely fall to the Taliban, he added.

“They’re not there yet,” McKenzie said of Afghan security forces. “If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe they would be able to successfully defend their country. I don’t know how long it’s going to take.”

McKenzie and NATO allies argue that leaving Afghanistan risks allowing the country to once again becoming a haven for extremists who would use the territory as a place to plot attacks abroad.

In Brussels, Stoltenberg said allies are determined to stay the course in Afghanistan despite the difficulties.

“We remain committed to supporting Afghanistan,” Stoltenberg said.

“This is obviously good for the Afghan people. But it is also in our own interest. Because a secure and stable Afghanistan makes us all safer.”

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Stoltenberg said allies are focused on training Afghans to operate more effectively, and in turn lower their casualty rates.

“This is something which is really high on our agenda,” Stoltenberg said.

Since NATO ended its formal combat mission in Afghanistan four years ago, the Taliban has gained territory and seen its force levels strengthen. McKenzie said there are roughly 60,000 Taliban fighters now, which is higher than past estimates.

Still, Stoltenberg said now is the time for peace talks.

“The Taliban must understand that continuing the fight is pointless and only causes more suffering. They should sit down at the negotiating table,” Stoltenberg said.

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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