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ARLINGTON, Va. — The Defense Department announced Tuesday that the majority of the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division will not deploy to Afghanistan next year, reducing overall U.S. troop strength in that country from 19,000 to 16,500.

One of the brigade’s three battalions will deploy to southern Afghanistan in mid-2006 while the other two will remain prepared to deploy within 15 days, according to Defense Department officials.

A significant reason for the U.S. troop reduction is the growing role NATO has in Afghanistan, said Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita on Tuesday.

Recently, NATO announced that in 2006 it would send 6,000 troops to southern Afghanistan to augment the 12,000 troops it already has there.

“The NATO ISAF mission is increasingly a presence inside Afghanistan and that presence, together with the growing presence of Afghan forces, allows us to make this adjustment,” Di Rita said.

Afghanistan has an army of about 27,000 troops and has about 55,000 police officers, the Defense Department said Tuesday in a corresponding news release.

One issue unresolved among NATO nations is what the rules of engagement will be, Di Rita said.

“Apparently, there are still some national decisions that have to be taken to make that real, but everyone expects that that [agreement] will happen,” he said.

Di Rita declined to say whether NATO had decided whether its troops would conduct combat operations. “We don’t discuss rules of engagement,” he said.

As the U.S. plans to reduce its troop level in Afghanistan, insurgents are beginning to use suicide bomber tactics commonplace in Iraq.

Di Rita acknowledged that Afghanistan faces challenges but said the country is dealing with its problems in an ongoing political process, which recently saw the seating of a democratically elected parliament.

“The political process is probably going to be the most effective way at managing the various divisions in that country in a way that other countries have found successful,” he said.

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