US Pentagon chief reassures Afghans as Trump era dawns
KABUL: Pentagon chief Ashton Carter sought to reaffirm US commitment to Afghanistan on Friday, as uncertainty lingers over President-elect Donald Trump´s strategy on America´s longest war in the face of a resilient Taliban insurgency.
Carter met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and American troops on his last official trip to Afghanistan before he hands over the reins to Trump´s pick for defense secretary, the hardline retired general James Mattis.
Carter´s surprise visit comes as concerns mount over growing insecurity in Afghanistan, where around 10,000 US troops are assisting struggling Afghan forces to combat a dogged Taliban insurgency along with Al-Qaeda and Daesh militants.
“America is, and will remain, committed to a sovereign and secure Afghanistan,” Carter told reporters at a joint press conference with Ghani.
“We stand with the people of Afghanistan who have put themselves at risk and sacrificed so much.”
Ghani thanked Carter for the US military support and the sacrifices of American troops in Afghanistan, even as uncertainty looms over Trump´s presidency.
Trump has given surprisingly little details on his expected foreign policy, with even fewer specifics on how he will tackle the war in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan got scarcely a passing mention in the bitterly contested US presidential election — even though the situation in the conflict-torn country will be an urgent matter for the new president.
The Taliban are ramping up nationwide attacks despite the onset of winter, when fighting usually ebbs, even as international efforts intensify to jumpstart peace talks.
Fifteen years and hundreds of billions of dollars since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the security situation in the country remains fraught and Afghan forces are struggling to contain the conflict.
One of the most important questions facing Trump on Afghanistan is how many American troops will stay in the country, observers say.
President Barack Obama was forced to slow a planned withdrawal of US troops in the face of Taliban gains, and about 8,400 will remain in the country when he leaves office early next year.
Mattis, whose nicknames in the military include “Mad Dog” and the “Warrior Monk”, has led troops in Afghanistan and has previously criticised Obama´s plan to pull forces from the country.
Carter landed at Bagram Airfield, the largest US military base in Afghanistan, where four Americans were killed in a suicide bombing in November, in a major breach of security.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the bombing inside the heavily fortified base, north of the capital Kabul, which left 16 other US service members and a Polish soldier wounded as the insurgents step up attacks on Western targets.