Mat­tis visit gives sign of new bat­tle plan

Afghan se­cu­rity sta­tus frag­ile af­ter 16 years of war

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY CARLO MUNOZ This ar­ti­cle is based in part on wire ser­vice re­ports.

A sur­prise visit by De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis to Afghanistan on Mon­day has fu­eled spec­u­la­tion that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion may be close to a new bat­tle plan for the 16-year-old war.

In his first visit to the coun­try as Pen­tagon chief, tacked onto a larger diplo­matic trip to meet with U.S. al­lies in Africa and the Mid­dle East, Mr. Mat­tis pulled no punches over the state of the fight­ing.

He ar­rived at a low point for Afghan Se­cu­rity Forces in the three years since Pres­i­dent Obama ended the U.S. com­bat mission. Thou­sands of Amer­i­can troops re­main as ad­vis­ers and train­ers.

Over 200 Afghan sol­diers were killed dur­ing a com­plex at­tack on a key mil­i­tary head­quar­ters in the coun­try’s north on Fri­day. The Tal­iban at­tack on the head­quar­ters for the Afghan army’s 209th Sha­heen corps in Balkh province was the sin­gle largest loss of life suf­fered by the coun­try’s se­cu­rity forces since 2001. Also on Mon­day, a po­lice of­fi­cial said at least four se­cu­rity guards were killed when a sui­cide bomber at­tacked their check­point in east­ern Afghanistan.

Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani forced De­fense Min­is­ter Ab­dul­lah Habibi and Army Chief of Staff Qadam Shah Shahim to re­sign by in the af­ter­math of Fri­day’s at­tack.

In the Tal­iban’s de­tailed state­ment on the at­tack, posted on the mil­i­tant group’s web­site, spokesman Zabi­hul­lah Mu­jahid said that four of the 10 at­tack­ers in Balkh were dis­guised as sol­diers.

The state­ment said the at­tack was in re­tal­i­a­tion for the killing of the Tal­iban shadow gov­er­nor of Kun­duz province, Mul­lah Ab­dul Salam Akhund, and threat­ened more vi­o­lence against the army and po­lice, say­ing “this year’s op­er­a­tions will be painful.”

In a joint brief­ing in Kabul with Gen. John Ni­chol­son, the top U.S. com­man­der in Afghanistan, Mr. Mat­tis said he was “un­der no illusions” over the mul­ti­tude of threats to the coun­try’s frag­ile se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion.

Mr. Mat­tis made his stop in Afghanistan shortly af­ter an­other sur­prise visit by a top ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial. Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser H.R. McMaster vis­ited U.S. and coali­tion head­quar­ters in Kabul this month, the first trip of its kind since his pre­de­ces­sor Jim Jones landed in 2009 shortly be­fore Mr. Obama or­dered a tem­po­rary U.S. troop surge.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­mained mum on its plans for Afghanistan, and Mr. Trump gave the war short shrift on the cam­paign trail. But the visit by Mr. Mat­tis, who once com­manded the 1st Marine Ex­pe­di­tionary Brigade in south­ern Afghanistan, has fu­eled spec­u­la­tion that the White House may be close to a way for­ward.

Gen. Ni­chol­son and Cen­tral Com­mand chief Gen. Joseph Vo­tel have pub­licly voiced their sup­port for more Amer­i­can and NATO forces in the coun­try. Cur­rently, 8,500 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan ad­vis­ing and as­sist­ing Afghan forces.

Gen. Ni­chol­son on Mon­day would not deny that Russia, in a re­vival of Cold War ri­val­ries over Afghanistan, is pro­vid­ing weapons and equip­ment to the Tal­iban. De­clin­ing to pro­vide specifics, the gen­eral said he would “not re­fute” charges that Moscow has been pro­vid­ing ma­te­rial sup­port to the in­sur­gency to weaken the U.S.-based Ghani govern­ment.

Prior to Fri­day’s deadly as­sault in Balkh, U.S. forces used one of the most pow­er­ful, non-nu­clear weapons in the Amer­i­can arsenal against Is­lamic State tar­gets in east­ern Afghanistan’s Nan­garhar province. It was the first time the 22,000-pound mu­ni­tion, dubbed “the mother of all bombs,” had been used in com­bat.

Its use has raised doubts over the over­all di­rec­tion of the war. Crit­ics ques­tion why U.S. com­man­ders were forced to use a weapon of that mag­ni­tude in a con­flict that Amer­i­can and Afghan forces have been fight­ing for nearly two decades.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis (cen­ter) met Mon­day with Army Gen. John Ni­chol­son, the top U.S. com­man­der in Afghanistan (sec­ond left), Afghan se­cu­rity di­rec­tor Mo­ham­mad Ma­soom Stanekzai (right) and other mem­bers of the Afghan del­e­ga­tion at head­quar­ters in Kabul. Mr. Mat­tis said he was “un­der no illusions” about the mul­ti­tude of threats to the coun­try’s se­cu­rity.

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