Decision is closer on strategy for Afghanistan: Mattis
WASHINGTON: After months of heated internal debate, the Trump administration has almost made a decision on a new approach to fight the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Thursday. He gave no hint of what strategy would look like.
In remarks by the State Department, Mattis told reporters that President Donald Trump would hold talks with his national security team Friday at the presidential retreat of Camp David in Maryland, and said the talks “will move to a decision”.
“We are coming very close to a decision, and I anticipate it in the very near future,” he added.
A few months ago, the Pentagon had a plan to send about 3,800 additional troops to reinforce the Afghan army, which is stalled in what some call a stalemate impasse with the Taliban insurgency.
Some in the White House have questioned the wisdom of investing more resources in war, which is the longest in American history.
The administration said its strategy in Afghanistan would be informed by a review of its approach to the wider region, including Pakistan and India. The Taliban have long used Pakistan as a sanctuary, complicating efforts to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan and stabilize the country.
The prospects in Afghanistan are obscured by the government’s struggle to end the Taliban’s progress. In its most recent report, the US Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan said the Taliban is swinging in about half of the country.
Government forces are also fighting a subsidiary of the Islamic state that has widened mainly in eastern Afghanistan.
Trump has promised to crush IS, so the affiliate in Afghanistan poses an additional challenge without immediate solution. Just this week, an American soldier was killed and nearly a dozen were injured in combat with the IS affiliate.
The United States has about 8,400 soldiers in Afghanistan. Their main role is to train and advise Afghan forces, to hunt and kill members of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.
Trump expressed his frustration at the protracted fighting in Afghanistan. Earlier this summer, he raised the idea of dismissing the first American commander there, General John Nicholson. On July 18, he said, “I want to know why we have been there for 17 years.”
Asked on Monday if Trump has confidence in Nicholson, Mattis has denied.
“Ask the president,” Mattis said. “I will tell you right away, he is our commander on the ground, he has the confidence of NATO, he has the confidence of Afghanistan, he has the confidence of the United States.”
Trump “looks at all aspects” of US involvement in Afghanistan “as it should in his responsibilities as commander-in-chief,” said Mattis.
Legislators in Congress are also frustrated by the war and the protracted debate within the administration on how to break the deadlock. Last week, the Republican senator
John McCain said that “America is adrift in Afghanistan”. He proposed a war strategy that would broaden the US counter-terrorism effort and provide increased support to the Afghan security forces.