Photographer: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty Images

Mattis Says U.S. and Allies ‘Holding the Line’ in Afghanistan

Updated on
  • Defense chief says talk of big Taliban offensive ‘unfulfilled’
  • McCain protests Congress given no details on Trump’s strategy

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the U.S. and allies are “holding the line” against the Taliban in Afghanistan as forecasts of a significant offensive by the militants “remain unfulfilled.”

As the U.S. approaches the 16th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, now America’s longest war, Mattis gave his first congressional testimony Tuesday since President Donald Trump’s announcement in August of an expanded U.S. role to train and advise Afghan forces.

Mattis, who told Congress in June that “we are not winning in Afghanistan,” was more sanguine this time. “Uncertainty in the region and the NATO campaign has been replaced by certainty due to the implementation of President Trump’s new South Asia Strategy,” he said.

While Republican Senator John McCain or Arizona, the committee’s chairman, praised Trump’s decision to eliminate deadlines for withdrawing U.S. troops, he called it “totally unacceptable” that Congress has been given no detailed information on the revised strategy.

More than 3,000 U.S. troops are being added to about 11,000 already in Afghanistan, according to Mattis. An additional 6,800 NATO and coalition troops are there to assist about 320,000 Afghan national security forces. Marine General Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate panel that the revamped U.S. strategy means an “enduring commitment” to Afghanistan.

War’s ‘Stalemate’

Dunford said the agreed with the February assessment of the top U.S. general in Afghanistan that the situation was a stalemate. “That’s my assessment of where we are right now,” Dunford said. “We are not at a point where we can bring a successful political solution to the war.”

Dunford outlined four scenarios that he said constituted victory within the U.S.’s capability in Afghanistan -- and said “we can do that” for each:

  • “Making sure we don’t have another attack on the homeland from the terrorist organizations that operate in South Asia.”
  • “Getting the Afghan forces to the point where they can provide security for their country with a minimum amount of international support.”
  • Meeting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s goals for security of the population “in key economic areas.”
  • “Convincing the Taliban that they can’t win in the battlefield and are going to have to enter an Afghan-led peace process.”

U.S. troop levels reached a peak of about 100,000 in 2011. More than 2,000 U.S. troops have been killed and over 20,000 wounded.

Mattis’s optimism is at odds with analysts including the U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, who said in a report in August that a group affiliated with Islamic State has laid down roots in the country, part of a broad deterioration that has seen a record number of Afghan civilians killed. The inspector general depicted U.S. personnel as hunkered down behind blast walls.

Mattis, echoing vows by his three predecessors as defense secretary and now by Trump, said the U.S. must increase pressure on Pakistan to seal off its northwestern border to stop the Taliban and other militants from using the territories as a safe haven to plan and execute attacks. “We will firmly address Pakistan’s role,” Mattis said.

Read a QuickTake Q&A on Why Pushing Pakistan Isn’t Simple

Mattis said that “for the first time in this long fight, all six Afghan military corps are engaged in offensive operations” and “during these recent months there have been fewer civilian casualties” because of coalition operations.

The defense chief said U.S. military personnel will be deployed closer to the front lines, embedding with Afghan troops at the battalion and brigade level instead of farther away at the corps or headquarters level.

“Make no mistake, this is combat duty but the Afghan forces remain in the lead for fighting,” he said.

Senator Elizabeth Warren was perhaps the most skeptical of the lawmakers, pressing Mattis on how the new strategy involving as many as 15,000 U.S. troops would make a difference that 100,000 couldn’t.

The new strategy smacked of “more of the same except that we removed the timetable” for any U.S. withdrawal,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.

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