JALALABAD, Afghanistan (AP) — Defense Secretary Ash Carter told his Afghan counterpart Friday that the United States is "with you," committed to supporting Afghan security forces and building their capabilities for years to come.
Carter made a one-day visit to Afghanistan to assess the fragile security situation, amid reports of increased violence and a growing campaign by Islamic State loyalists to gain a foothold in the eastern part of the country.
"We're with you. We stand by you," Carter told Afghanistan's Acting Defense Minister Masoom Stankzai during a news conference at Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad.
Carter's visit comes as his top commander there, Gen. John Campbell, voiced concerns that foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq are joining with Afghans who have declared loyalty to IS in the east, near the Pakistan border.
Officials have been warning for some time that while the presence of IS has been small, about 1,000 to 3,000 troops, it is attracting disaffected members of the Taliban. Carter said the Islamic State is "trying to create little nests where they feel there is an opportunity." He said the U.S. is trying to make sure they don't gain a foothold, particularly in nearby Nangahar Province.
Fueling those concerns is a new Pentagon report saying that the Taliban has been emboldened by the reduced U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and attacks increased this year.
There are about 600 U.S. troops at Fenty, one of the key bases where American troops will remain beyond 2016. Other bases have been shut down across the country as the number of U.S. and coalition forces has dropped in recent years.
Overall, there are about 14,000 U.S. and coalition troops in the country.
In October, at the urgings of his military commanders, President Barack Obama announced that he would keep troops levels steady through most of next year. By the end of 2016, rather than draw down to a Kabul-only U.S. military presence of about 1,000 troops as previously planned, Obama decided the U.S. will maintain 5,500 troops in Kabul and Bagram.
Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told reporters that the U.S. will focus on expanding Afghan training this winter, including how to build and maintain their forces and how to improve their control of checkpoints, where they have had a lot of casualties.
Stankzai acknowledged that building the Afghan force won't take place overnight. "We have a long way to go," he said.
According to a senior defense official, elements of the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan feel threatened by the Islamic State's growth there and it has created a new dynamic in the region. The official was not authorized to discuss the visit publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Campbell also predicted a difficult winter of fighting against the Taliban, particularly in the south, including Helmand Province. The Taliban want to show that they are still strong, said Campbell, adding that "this year was all about trying to show control."
One topic of discussion with the Afghans during the trip will be U.S. plans to deliver A-29 Super Tucano close air support aircraft to the Afghans. They are supposed to get 20 by 2018, including eight early next year.