BRUSSELS (AFP) - Committed to withdrawal in 2014, Nato’s Afghan strategy faces a serious test in coming months with the Taliban expected to step up attacks on local forces taking over security, a senior Nato officer said Thursday.

US-led Nato forces are handing over more and more duties as the Afghanistan army this year takes the lead role in combat. But a decline in Taliban activity, which began in 2009, should not be taken as guaranteed to continue, said the officer, who asked not to be named. “They have not taken a (time-out),” he said, adding: “We think they are going to come at the Afghan” forces as the fighting season returns with improved weather. He said it was significant that the Taliban had been pushed out of major population centres, with the Afghan police now strong enough to act as a holding force on the ground.

The Nato withdrawal also means the Taliban will no longer be able to claim they are fighting foreign forces, a major factor in their recruitment drive, the officer said. Also, “there is no problem recruiting” for the Afghan army, he maintained. Asked about post-2014 policy, when the United States and its allies are supposed to provide a training and counter-terrorism force for the government, the officer said the issue was not about the numbers involved but the mission’s role. US President Barack Obama and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai held tough talks last week over a continued US troop presence, with Washington touting a “zero option” at one point amid sharp differences over their legal status.

Meanwhile, the US ambassador to Kabul said Thursday that a real peace process in Afghanistan has not begun and the United States does not know what has happened to Taliban prisoners released by Pakistan.

Pakistan said 26 prisoners were freed late last year in a bid to kick-start peace talks ahead of the withdrawal of US-led Nato troops from Afghanistan, whose government is under pressure from an 11-year Taliban insurgency.

“We don’t know, frankly, what has happened to the people that the Pakistanis have released,” ambassador James Cunningham told a news briefing.

With the control of prisoners in Afghanistan a major issue between the US and the government of President Hamid Karzai, Cunningham said some freed prisoners had returned to Taliban ranks in senior positions in the past.