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NATO commanders signal support for keeping troops in Afghanistan

By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: May 18, 2016

BRUSSELS — The U.S. military's new top officer in the war in Afghanistan met with military chiefs from NATO nations Wednesday, offering in a closed-door meeting his assessment of a conflict that is nearly 15 years old.

Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr.'s presented his assessment behind closed doors to dozens of senior military officers, including Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. Curtis "Mike" Scaparrotti, the new supreme allied commander of NATO. Nicholson did not appear at a news conference afterward, but Scaparrotti said that after hearing the war commander's plan, Scaparrotti is in favor of an approach that would remove additional forces only as conditions on the ground allow.

"It's a means to realize our objective of a stable and secure Afghanistan that is not a haven for terrorists any longer," Scaparrotti said. "I think that's what I take away from General Nicholson's report, and I think it's important that the [military chiefs] also heard it today."

Scaparrotti declined to characterize Nicholson's plan. But his comments, coupled with troubles by the Afghan government in quelling a bloody uprising in which the Taliban has seized territory in numerous parts of the country, appear to signal support for leaving U.S. troops in Afghanistan longer than planned. President Obama has been grappling with whether to deviate from his plan to cut the number of American troops there again before he leaves office.

Obama announced last fall that he was keeping a force of about 9,800 troops deployed through most of 2016, with 5,500 into 2017. But military officials and national security analysts believe that the president may be open to keeping more there longer in a limited role that continues to focus on the Afghan military weaknesses, including building a fledgling air force that has few trained pilots and mechanics and growing abilities to better manage budgets, logistics and intelligence.

Gen. Petr Pavel, a Czech officer who serves as chairman of the NATO military committee, said Wednesday that there is general acknowledgment among most NATO allies involved in Afghanistan that it would be wise to leave the "same amount of participation" there now because they believe the conditions are not yet met for us to withdraw." He called Afghan troops "essential to the stability of the Afghan state and a critical component in building the confidence of the Afghan people in their society."

The NATO mission in Afghanistan, Operation Resolute Support, currently includes about 12,800 troops, including some 6,900 Americans, according to statistics released by the coalition. The majority of the other 2,900 U.S. troops are devoted to a separate but related mission, Freedom's Sentinel, that focuses heavily on counterterrorism.

The military chiefs were meeting ahead of a larger NATO summit in Warsaw in July. Many U.S. officials believe the president could make a decision on troop numbers before then. Pavel said Wednesday that the military chiefs would focus heavily on preparing for the summit.

"Our discussions today provide an opportunity to establish a common understanding of recent developments in our constantly evolving security environment," the Czech general said. "We will identify the most important advice for our ministers and heads of state and government as NATO prepares for the Warsaw Summit."

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., and Resolute Support Commander, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., arrive at the Ministry of Defense in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 2, 2016.
D. MYLES CULLEN/DEPT OF DEFENSE PHOTO

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