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KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban appear to be strengthening ties with other extremist groups, NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland said Tuesday, a development that could further boost the already emboldened insurgents and hinder international efforts at reconciliation.

The warning came just days after Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “fundamental decisions” would have to be made urgently about coalition troop levels in 2017.

Cleveland, who is also the spokesman for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the opaque nature of the insurgents makes it difficult to gauge when they are cooperating, “but we do see these organizations ... beginning to work more and more together.”

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the operational commander of the Haqqani Network, a group Cleveland described as “perhaps the most capable terrorist organization operating in Afghanistan,” was named deputy leader of the Taliban last year.

“We do believe that that probably indicates to us that we are going to see a bit of a closer relationship between those organizations,” Cleveland said.

He also said the military “expect al-Qaida will very likely be working more closely with the Taliban as we move forward,” after the group’s leaders swore allegiance to new Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor last summer.

By consolidating ties with other groups, “the Taliban really does pose, in our view, a very serious and a very real threat,” Cleveland said.

The Afghan government had hoped to exploit Taliban infighting after authorities revealed that former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar had been dead for two years, and some senior insurgent leaders opposed Monsoor’s appointment as his successor.

The Taliban have made impressive gains in 2015 after the international military coalition ended its combat role in Afghanistan. The insurgents have vowed to increase attacks this year, leading some analysts to predict that fighting in 2016 could be the deadliest since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

While U.S. forces are able to conduct counterterrorism operations against groups the Taliban are colluding with, targeting the insurgents is left to the Afghan security forces — unless insurgents attack American troops.

Though some commanders have suggested changing that policy to allow international troops to more readily come to the aid of Afghan forces who have suffered record casualties in the past year.

As part of its counterterrorism missions, the United States conducted just under 100 “kinetic strikes” between Jan. 1 and March 31 this year, predominantly in Nangarhar province against adherents to the Islamic State, whose numbers have dropped from an estimated 3,000 to around 1,000. A few strikes were against al-Qaida, Cleveland said.

Despite the resiliency of the insurgency, the Afghan government and its international backers continue to seek a negotiated settlement to end the country’s 15-year war.

The Taliban have so far rejected overtures to resume peace talks that collapsed last year.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week, Dunford said “the reality is we are approaching now the period of high operational tempo in Afghanistan.” This meant that the U.S. and NATO would have to decide in the next few months on what their contribution levels should be in 2017 so that the incoming contingents could be properly prepared for the mission, he said.

The U.S. is currently scheduled to draw down its 9,800 troops in Afghanistan to about 5,500 by the start of next year. Twitter: @PhillipWellman

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Phillip is a reporter and photographer for Stars and Stripes, based in Kaiserslautern, Germany. From 2016 to 2021, he covered the war in Afghanistan from Stripes’ Kabul bureau. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics.
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