Defense secretary assures Afghan leaders of U.S. commitment

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Friday that America will stick with Afghanistan for years to come as a new U.S. president takes over what is already America’s longest war.

In a joint appearance in Kabul with Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, Carter said the U.S. cannot afford to give up on Afghanistan after more than 15 years of U.S. involvement, the deaths of more than 2,200 U.S. troops, and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars.

“The interests we are pursuing here are clear and enduring,” he said, citing the goals of preventing another 9/11-type of attack on American soil and helping Afghanistan attain enough stability to remain a long-term security partner for the U.S. and the West. The war began as a response to the 9/11 attacks.

“To have a stable security partner that is eager and willing to work with the United States is an asset for the future for us,” Carter said.

Carter was making his last planned trip to Afghanistan before handing off his Defense Department responsibilities to his successor. President-elect Donald Trump has nominated retired Marine Gen. James Mattis for the post.

Trump has not said if or how he will alter the U.S. course in Afghanistan, but has denounced what he calls U.S. nation-building projects.

The U.S. has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to train and advise Afghan security forces combating a resilient Taliban insurgency. U.S. special operations forces are hunting down al-Qaida and Islamic State militants.

Carter’s visit comes amid concerns that despite improvements in Afghan government defenses, Taliban forces are gaining leverage and are continuing to use neighboring Pakistan as a sanctuary. By U.S. estimates, the Afghan government controls slightly less than two-thirds of the country’s population.

The Taliban holds sway over about 10 percent, and the remainder of the population is “contested.”

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Friday “the fundamental logic” of the U.S. counterterrorism mission is solid, suggesting it should continue after the change of administrations.

“Our policy of having an enduring counterterrorism effort alongside Afghan partners is, in my view, very sound — something that we need to continue,” Army Gen. John Nicholson told a news conference in Bagram.

Appearing alongside Nicholson, Carter said that having “a stable security partner that is eager and willing to work with the United States is an asset for the future for us.”

U.S. commanders have praised Afghan soldiers for taking the lead in battles against the less-well equipped Taliban, but they have been suffering heavy casualties.

Before Carter’s arrival, his press secretary, Peter Cook, said Carter wanted to get a full rundown on operations. He said Carter would discuss “the growing capabilities and resilience demonstrated by Afghan security forces in recent months,” as well as efforts to build “Afghan combat capacity including aviation.”

President Barack Obama had planned to reduce U.S. troop numbers to about 1,000 by the time he left office in January, but he scrapped that approach in the face of Taliban gains.