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NATO Defense Chiefs Vow More Forces To Help Train Afghan Troops

U.S. Secretary for Defense Jim Mattis arrives prior to a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on June 29.

Defense ministers from NATO member states vowed to provide more forces to help train Afghanistan's embattled military, although they did not set out exact numbers ahead of any U.S. announcement on its planned increase in troops.

Following a NATO meeting in Brussels on June 29, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told a news conference that, "looking back on it, it's pretty much a consensus that we may have...reduced the numbers [of troops] a little too rapidly."

Since drawing down from a peak of more than 130,000 NATO troops in 2011, current troop levels are at about 13,500 in what is known as the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, of which half are from the United States.

Officials said Mattis pressed NATO allies and nonmember coalition partners in closed-door meetings to provide more personnel to help train the Afghan armed forces.

"I can confirm we will increase our presence in Afghanistan," he said. "We will look into how we together can...have enough troops to help the government and break the stalemate and so lay the ground for a political solution."

NATO currently has about 13,500 troops in what is known as the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, of which half are from the United States.

Stoltenberg did not give precise figures but said that 15 NATO members "have already pledged additional contributions to Resolute Support Mission, and I look forward to further announcements from other nations."

British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told reporters ahead of the meeting that London would provide just under 100 troops, on top of 500 already in Afghanistan.

U.S. media reported that U.S. President Donald Trump's administration is weighing sending another 3,000 to 5,000 troops to Afghanistan in order to break what Mattis has called a "stalemate" between Afghan government forces and the Taliban.

After the NATO meeting, Mattis would not predict when military operations in the war-torn country might end, saying that wars were fundamentally an "unpredictable phenomenon."

Mohammad Radmanish, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry, welcomed NATO's decision to increase troop numbers in the country and told the Associated Press that Afghan forces were in need of "expert" training, heavy artillery, and a quality air force.

But lawmaker Mohammad Zekria Sawda expressed skepticism, saying NATO and the United States were unable to bring peace to Afghanistan when they had more than 120,000 soldiers deployed against Taliban militants.

"Every day we are feeling more worry," Sawda said.

Allies are also expected to announce individual figures for defense expenditures, after approval by NATO ambassadors, with the overall spending for 2017 at some $280 billion.

Stoltenberg on June 28 announced that NATO allies -- with the exception of the United States -- will increase defense spending by 4.3 percent this year, marking a cumulative $46 billion increase since 2014.

"After years of decline, in 2015 we saw a real increase in defense spending across European allies and Canada," Stoltenberg said.

NATO sets a goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense for each member, but only the United States, Britain, Estonia, Greece, and Poland now meet that guideline, leaving the United States shouldering about 70 percent of the alliance's expenditures.

During a meeting with EU leaders in Brussels on May 26, Trump sharply criticized many NATO members for failing to meet military spending targets.

Stoltenberg said that the alliance expects three other member states -- Romania, Lithuania, and Latvia -- to reach the 2 percent threshold this year and in 2018.

Following Russia's illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in March 2014 and its backing of separatists in the country's east, NATO has embarked on its largest military buildup since the end of the Cold War to counter a more assertive Moscow.

Defense ministers are discussing progress just as four battalions totaling some 4,000 troops complete their deployment in the three Baltic states and Poland.

Stoltenberg on June 28 called the deployment "a historic achievement," and a "clear demonstration" of NATO's unity.

Ministers are also tackling the global threat of terrorism as well as cyberdefense, after computers across the world were struck by major cyberattacks this week and last month.

NATO agreed in 2016 that a cyberattack could warrant invoking Article 5 -- the alliance's mutual-security guarantee.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, and Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels