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Afghan military would support more foreign troops, official says

By Mirwais Harooni

By Mirwais Harooni

KABUL (Reuters) - The Afghan Defense Ministry welcomed on Friday suggestions by the commander of international forces in Afghanistan that more troops were needed to train Afghan security forces, who are battling to hold back a growing Taliban-led insurgency.

General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on Thursday he did not have enough troops to adequately advise Afghan forces on the ground.

Nicholson told lawmakers the NATO-led force in Afghanistan had enough troops to carry out counterterrorism missions but had "a shortfall of a few thousand" for its major role of advising Afghan security forces.

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His comments came just as U.S. President Donald Trump and his Afghan counterpart, Ashraf Ghani, spoke by telephone for the first time since Trump's inauguration last month. The two discussed security, counterterrorism cooperation and economic development, officials said.

Afghan defense ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri said more international troops would be a "good step" towards countering militant groups in Afghanistan.

"The Afghan defense ministry supports any decision taken between the Afghan and American governments," he said. "This is a joint battle against terrorism and we support any possible way to tackle terrorism in the country."

The focus of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan has narrowed considerably to training Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism missions since a significant drawdown under former U.S. President Barack Obama.

About 8,400 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, well down from their peak of about 100,000 in 2011.

Waziri said the Afghan military had asked the U.S. government for more equipment and training for its forces.

The Taliban, who have made some of their most significant gains since they were ousted by U.S.-led Afghan forces in late 2001, dismissed the idea that more foreign troops could make a difference.

"This is nothing more than a dream," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters. "We have experienced large numbers of invader forces in our country. This will be nothing more than suffering and more casualties."

On the streets of Kabul, the idea of additional international support was welcomed.

"Considering the current situation, interference by neighboring countries, and the corrupt circles within the government, we would be happy for the number of foreign troops to increase," said Mohammad Rafiq.

NATO allies and other international partners also provide military advisers for the U.S.-led mission. Nicholson said extra forces need not all come from the United States and could also be drawn from its allies.

Any final decision on troop levels would be made by Trump, who has not made any major policy announcements on Afghanistan but has signaled he would be open to the idea of more troops if the military determined they were needed.

(Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel)