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U.S. Defense Chief Nears Recommendation On Afghan Troop Levels

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says he will make recommendations soon to President Donald Trump on whether to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Mattis said on February 19 that the president had been "rightfully reticent" on the matter, as he was waiting for input from his generals about the situation in Afghanistan -- where U.S. forces have been deployed against the Taliban and other extremist militants for more than 15 years.

"We are putting our thoughts together now," Mattis told reporters during a visit to Abu Dhabi. "It shouldn't take too long.”

He added that Trump "is open to my advice on it, but first of all I've got to formulate where I stand, so this is the normal collection of... information."

Mattis said he spoke for several hours by video conference on February 19 with General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month that he needs a few thousand more troops to train and advise Afghan forces.

Nicholson didn't provide an exact number, but he called for greater flexibility in setting U.S. troop levels.

He also said that, after a U.S. troop presence of more than 15 years, the war in Afghanistan has reached a "stalemate."

Mattis met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Munich on February 18.

He was scheduled to fly to Kabul on February 19, but bad weather forced him to postpone the trip.

U.S. troop levels in the country are limited to 8,400 after former President Barack Obama insisted on reducing their presence and handing security responsibility to Afghan forces.

Meanwhile, Mattis did not directly address the role of Russia in Afghanistan, which as part of the Soviet Union fought a war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

General Nicholson had told U.S. senators that Moscow was giving the Taliban encouragement and diplomatic cover in order to undermine U.S. influence and to defeat NATO.

Mattis said he needs to "assess what the other countries in the region are doing in Afghanistan to help or hinder us in our efforts. We are still sorting that out."

With reporting by AP and AFP
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