- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

WASHINGTON (AP) - The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is sending his recommendations to senior leaders this week on how many American troops should remain in the country next year to work with Afghan forces battling a resurgent Taliban, a military spokesman said Wednesday.

Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland said Gen. John Nicholson is finishing his assessment of the ongoing security threat there and the needs of the Afghan military. Speaking to Pentagon reporters from Kabul, Cleveland said the plan will be sent to U.S. Central Command and to the Pentagon, and Nicholson is expected to brief senior military leaders in the next few days.

There has been increased speculation in recent months about whether the U.S. will keep more troops in Afghanistan into next year than originally planned. There are now about 9,800 troops in the country, and President Barack Obama has said that number would drop to 5,500 by the end of this year.

Officials have said Obama will listen to his commanders’ advice. U.S. military leaders have pushed to keep the higher troop level as long as they can this year.

Cleveland said he can’t say what will be in the assessment, but said Nicholson looked at the overall threat situation, the mission and ongoing operations.

“He is taking a look at current operations and really what we project over the coming weeks and months and other big events that will happen in Afghanistan; and then finally, he’s looking at the resources available,” Cleveland said.

He acknowledged that while Afghan security forces have been making slow but steady progress, they are they are facing stiff Taliban resistance in the south. He said there was an uptick in fighting in Helmand Province over the weekend, but so far the increase in fighting after the end of poppy season has not been as significant as officials thought it would be.

The fight in southern Afghanistan has intensified, as the Taliban concentrate their war on Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces. The Taliban leader in the south is Mullah Yaqoub, the son of the one-eyed founder and late leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar.

The U.S. and NATO formally ended their combat mission in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, but have continued to provide support and assistance as the Afghan forces struggle to grow and gain greater capabilities, including in their air operations. The U.S. also continues to conduct counterterrorism missions, specifically targeting al-Qaida and Islamic State militants in the country.

Cleveland said U.S. troops have been accompanying Afghan forces in partnered missions only about 10 percent of the time. As many as 80 percent of the missions are conducted by Afghans alone, and the rest are missions that require some type of U.S. planning or logistical assistance.

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