ISLAMABAD - U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has praised the "growing capabilities and resilience" that Afghan security forces have demonstrated this year in battling the Taliban insurgency and conducting joint operations with American partners against Islamic State terrorists.
During his final visit to Afghanistan as head of the Pentagon before President-elect Donald Trump takes command of America's longest war, Carter emphasized that Washington remains committed to Afghanistan's future.
"The United States presence and continued support to Afghan forces and strategic partnership with the government of Afghanistan demonstrates to the world that America is and will remain committed to a sovereign and secure Afghanistan," said Carter during a joint news conference with President Ashraf Ghani.
Around 10,000 American troops are in Afghanistan. They are tasked to conduct counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda and IS terrorists, and to train and advise Afghan forces under the larger NATO mission called Resolute Support.
President-elect Trump has given little indication of his foreign policy plans. Afghanistan in particular was not a frequent point of discussion during his campaign.
Secretary Carter praised successes Afghan security forces have made this year against Taliban insurgents with the help of U.S. and its NATO partners.
"They demonstrated their growing capabilities and resilience. And they denied the Taliban its own stated goal of seizing a major population center," he said.
Carter added that U.S. forces together with Afghan partners have recently conducted two large-scale operations against IS, killing its top leader in the country and significantly degrading its capabilities in Afghanistan. Carter is expected to discuss ongoing efforts to continue building Afghan combat capacity, including the country's growing Air Force.
Tough Year for Afghan forces
The Taliban has inflicted record casualties on Afghan security forces during this year's fighting and have made territorial advances, particularly in southern Afghan regions.
The insurgents control roughly 10 percent territory while two-thirds is controlled by the Afghan government and the remainder of the population is contested.
Carter also addressed and thanked American troops for their services and sacrifices while addressing them at Bagram, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan. Commander of the Resolute Support mission also spoke on the occasion.
"Our policy of having an enduring counterterrorism effort alongside Afghan partners is, in my view, very sound — something that we need to continue," said Nicholson.
Incoming President Trump has nominated retired Marine General James Mattis to be the next Pentagon chief. Afghanistan will be one of the major challenges facing the new administration, say analysts.
Taliban insurgents allegedly continue to use sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan to plot and guide insurgent attacks in Afghanistan. Islamabad denies the charges.
Afghan and American officials are also increasingly worried about Russia's growing ties with the Taliban amid concerns it could further complicate the Afghan war.
Russian ambassador to Kabul, Alexander Mantytskiy on Thursday acknowledged Moscow's contacts with the Islamist insurgency.
However, Mantytskiy insisted, the contacts with the Taliban are aimed at ensuring the safety of Russian citizens and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan, and encouraging the insurgents to come to the table for peace talks with Kabul.
He also dismissed U.S.allegations that Moscow is arming the Taliban, saying they are aimed at distracting attention from the worsening Afghan conflict.