Reuters International

U.S Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (L) speaks during a joint news conference with Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan July 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

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By Yeganeh Torbati

KABUL (Reuters) - The senior U.S commander in Afghanistan will have greater freedom to strike at the Taliban under broad new powers approved last month by President Barack Obama, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Tuesday.

Carter, on an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, said the powers granted to General John Nicholson would allow "much more efficient use and effective use of the forces we have here as well as the Afghan forces."

Nicholson himself said the new broader authorities were being used "almost daily" in support of Afghan forces, pointing to a significant pickup in the pace of U.S. operations, 18 months after the end of the main NATO combat mission.

A U.S. military official said the new authorities had been used a couple of dozen times since they were approved by the White House in June.

Carter's visit comes days after Obama shelved plans to cut the U.S. force in Afghanistan nearly in half by year's end, opting instead to keep 8,400 troops there through to the end of his presidency in January.

Under the authorities previously granted to Nicholson, who commands both the NATO-led Resolute Support mission and a separate U.S. counterterrorism mission, his forces could generally only intervene against the Taliban when Afghan government troops requested emergency assistance.

"Whereas previously he waited until a situation had developed in which Afghan forces really needed our enabling support, now he's able to look ahead," Carter said at a talk with American troops at Bagram air base.

"That's a better way of making use of what we have here now," he said.

Americans have been backing up Afghan troops fighting Taliban militants in hotly contested southern regions, including Uruzgan and Maiwand in Kandahar province, as well as helping push insurgents back from areas around the northern city of Kunduz.

In addition, they were striking Islamic State fighters in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

"I think all the uses have been right in line with the intended purpose that the president gave us," Nicholson told reporters at Bagram.

Afghan forces, fighting largely on their own since the NATO-led mission ended most combat operations in 2014, have frequently asked for more combat assistance from their allies, particularly for close air strikes.

The Taliban have made major gains and are estimated to control more territory than at any time since they were driven from power by a U.S.-led campaign in 2001.

But after a difficult year in 2015, when the insurgents briefly captured Kunduz, Afghan and international officials say government troops have succeeded in stabilising the situation to a large extent.

Carter, who met both Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah as well as senior U.S. military commanders, said it was "critical" that the national unity government formed after disputed elections in 2014 maintained stability.

Ghani thanked the United States as well as other NATO allies who last week pledged to maintain support for Afghanistan. He also praised Afghan forces, who he said had been "standing tall" since the departure of foreign combat forces.

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Robert Birsel and Mike Collett-White)

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