NATO resuming more operations with Afghans, Pentagon says

Reuters News

9/27/2012 6:48:26 PM - Reuters News

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - NATO-led forces are resuming operations alongside their Afghan counterparts in growing numbers, a week after commanders curtailed some joint missions due to a surge in insider attacks and tensions over an anti-Islamic video, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

The Pentagon did not provide precise figures on the extent of the increase in partnering since the new policy was enacted. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said most units in Afghanistan were conducting "normal partnered operations at all levels."

"We must and we will take whatever steps are necessary to protect our forces. But I also want to underscore that we remain fully committed to our strategy of transitioning to Afghan security control," Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon.

Pentagon officials have downplayed NATO's moved to curtail joint missions, announced last week, stressing it was temporary and limited to units smaller than 800-strong battalions.

Still, analysts have questioned whether the move could deliver a propaganda victory to the Taliban and undercut the core mission of mentoring Afghan forces in those areas where joint operations were halted.

A U.S. official said operations were still not back to normal levels and the new policy requiring case-by-case approval from regional commanders for joint operations for units smaller than 800-strong battalions remains in effect.

Insider attacks in which Afghan security forces have turned their weapons against Western forces have accounted for about one in five combat deaths for NATO-led troops this year.

Panetta warned that more attacks were likely, despite ramped up efforts to crack down on infiltration by the Taliban and weed out radicalized Afghans.

"I expect that there will be more of these high-profile attacks and that the enemy will do whatever they can to try and break our will using this kind of tactic," Panetta said. "That will not happen."

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Todd Eastham)