US could have almost 16,000 troops in Afghanistan next year

U.S. Secretary for Defense Jim Mattis, left, shakes hands with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg prior to a meeting on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministers meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. NATO defense ministers start two days of talks looking to expand the military alliance's command structure and drum up more troop contributions for Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool)

BRUSSELS - The expected deployment of hundreds more U.S. Army trainers to Afghanistan early next year will probably increase the total number of American forces there to almost 16,000, according to U.S. officials.

At least 15,000 U.S. forces are in Afghanistan, after President Donald Trump decided to send about 3,800 troops to the country this fall to strengthen efforts to advise Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. All those extra troops are already in the country, U.S. defence officials said.

The Army's new security force assistance brigade is being built and trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, and will head to Afghanistan early next year. Senior U.S. defence officials cited ongoing discussions about whether other American forces would leave when the training unit arrives or whether the trainers would add to the U.S. military footprint already there.

The officials said Pentagon leaders, primarily U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, had initially set a tentative cap of about 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But they said Mattis has made clear he is committed to a force level based on military needs, not an arbitrary number. As a result, the officials said they believe the trainers will add to the total U.S. force number in Afghanistan, and not come in as replacements.

The officials weren't authorized to publicly discuss the troop numbers and insisted on condition of anonymity.

Calculating the actual number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has been an ongoing problem.

The Pentagon in August acknowledged having about 11,000 American troops there, after long camouflaging the total in misleading accounting measures and red tape. Under the Obama administration, troops were capped at 8,400. But that limit was routinely exceeded. Commanders shuffled troops in and out, labeled many "temporary" and used other personnel accounting tactics to artificially keep the public count low.

Trump has changed the policy, giving Mattis the authority to adjust troops levels based on military requirements and effectively eliminating the cap. Both Trump and Mattis have insisted repeatedly they don't want to talk publicly about troop numbers in Afghanistan because they don't want to give information to the enemy.

The influx of U.S. trainers underscores the military's renewed focus on building up Afghan forces so they can better fight the insurgents and take control of their own country's security. The goal is to reverse setbacks experienced by Afghan forces in recent years, as the Obama administration steadily reduced U.S. troop levels.

At the same time, however, the U.S. has been pressing NATO allies to increase their troop commitments to Afghanistan to help train and advise the Afghan forces and bolster the U.S.-led counterterrorism fight against Taliban, al-Qaida, Islamic State and other fighters.

In addition to the U.S. forces, there are about 6,000 troops in Afghanistan from other NATO and partner nations. The NATO mission focuses on training Afghans, and not combat or counterterrorism operations.

NATO defence ministers are meeting in Brussels this week to discuss the effort in Afghanistan and hear from allies on how many more troops they're willing to deploy to the war.

Speaking to reporters after meetings with northern European leaders in Finland on Tuesday, Mattis said he sent letters to some allies, asking them to increase their troop commitment in Afghanistan.

"There was feedback from a number of nations, both formally and informally," he said during the flight to Brussels. He said some are increasing their numbers, while others are working through their government processes to get decisions.


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