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Carter Makes Surprise Afghan Visit     12/09 06:25

   KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Friday that the 
United States will stick with Afghanistan for years to come.

   "America is and will remain committed to a sovereign and secure 
Afghanistan," Carter said in a joint appearance with President Ashraf Ghani 
during his final visit to the country as head of the Pentagon.

   It is Carter's last planned trip to Afghanistan before handing off his 
Defense Department responsibilities to his designated successor, retired Marine 
Gen. James Mattis.

   The U.S. has about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to train and advise Afghan 
security forces combatting 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."

   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 across the country.

   Prior to Carter's arrival, his press secretary, Peter Cook, said Carter 
wants to get a full rundown on operations. "In his meetings with senior Afghan 
officials, the secretary will discuss the growing capabilities and resilience 
demonstrated by Afghan security forces in recent months," Cook said. "He will 
also discuss ongoing efforts to continue building 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.

   The U.S. military has been in Afghanistan since it led an invasion force in 
October 2001 to overthrow the Taliban regime. The U.S. has suffered more than 
2,200 deaths in Afghanistan, including more than 1,800 killed in action, since 
the war began.

   President-elect Donald Trump has not said how he will approach the 
Afghanistan problem but has denounced what he calls U.S. nation-building 


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