FILE -In this Sept. 21, 2018, file photo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks during the 2018 POW/MIA National Recognition Day Ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington. President Donald Trump says Mattis will be retiring at the end of February 2019 and that a new secretary will be named shortly. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, file)

NATO aware of reports about US troop cuts in Afghanistan

December 21, 2018 - 6:59 am

BRUSSELS (AP) — The NATO military alliance said Friday that it has seen media reports that the United States could be readying to pull thousands of troops out of Afghanistan, and it paid tribute to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis after he resigned.

The Associated Press and others reported Thursday that U.S. officials said that the Pentagon is developing plans to possibly withdraw up to 7,000 troops serving in the conflict-torn country, marking a sharp change with a policy that had aimed to force the Taliban to the peace table after more than 17 years of war.

Almost 17,000 troops from 39 nations take part in NATO's Resolute Support mission helping to train and mentor Afghan security forces, often in a dangerous combat environment. About half of those troops are American. The U.S. is by far the biggest and most influential member of NATO. A separate U.S. force also conducts strikes on the Islamic State group and the Taliban.

It was unclear which American troops might leave or whether NATO has been informed.

Asked whether NATO was aware of any change of U.S. troop posture in Afghanistan and what impact it might have on the mission, spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said only that "we have seen the reports." She referred all questions to U.S. authorities.

But Lungescu underlined that "our engagement is important to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for international terrorists who could threaten us at home."

She noted that the Afghan police and army have been in charge of security efforts for over four years.

"They are a brave, committed and increasingly capable force, who have ensured the security of the parliamentary elections earlier this year," she said in an statement.

NATO leaders agreed in July to extend funding to the Afghan security forces until 2024 and earlier this month foreign ministers from the 29-nation alliance reaffirmed their commitment to the country.

Mattis, who has a deep understanding of NATO having worked with the alliance in a number of capacities, resigned Thursday after clashing with President Donald Trump over the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and after two years of deep disagreements over America's role in the world.

Lungescu praised his "key contribution to keeping NATO strong and ready to deal with the significant security challenges we face, while ensuring a fairer share of the burden across our alliance. He is widely respected as a soldier and a diplomat."

She said that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will continue to work closely with Mattis until he leaves office in February and expects to do the same with his successor.

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