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Mattis Hints At Changes In Washington’s Afghanistan Approach

FILE: U.S. soldiers during an operation in the eastern province of Nangarhar in April.
FILE: U.S. soldiers during an operation in the eastern province of Nangarhar in April.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he expects to soon lay out options for a strategy in Afghanistan before U.S. President Donald Trump.

In a congressional testimony on June 12, Mattis said Washington is likely to adopt a "regional approach" rather than addressing its 16-year Afghan war in isolation.

In a key hint at major changes in how the United States has dealt with the Afghan war so far, Mattis said the focus is now on the regional dimensions of the conflict.

He called for a “more regional strategy” so that action be “connected to the geographic reality of where this enemy is fighting from,” he told the House Armed Services Committee. “It’s not just Afghanistan.”

If operationalized, it will be a key departure from the approach of previous administrations that either ignored or did little to deprive the Afghan Taliban of their sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan.

Following the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Afghan and some U.S. officials have accused Islamabad of supporting -- or turning a blind eye -- to safe havens for the hard-line movement in Pakistan. They argued that the Taliban resurrection and insurgency would have been impossible without rear bases in Pakistan.

But U.S. dependence on Pakistan as a supply route for its forces in landlocked Afghanistan and Islamabad’s selective cooperation in going after international terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda have prevented Washington from chasing the Afghan Taliban inside Pakistan.

Thus, the Afghan Taliban were largely shielded from U.S. warfare inside Pakistan. Hundreds of alleged U.S. drone strikes in northwestern Pakistan mostly targeted Al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and allied Central Asian militants. Few targeted the Afghan Taliban. Apart from killing Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansur in a May 2016 strike, the main Afghan Taliban sanctuary in the southwestern province of Balochistan has largely remained untouched by U.S. firepower.

For years, Islamabad denied backing or hosting the Taliban. But last year, Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's adviser for foreign affairs, acknowledged that the Taliban “leadership is in Pakistan, and they get some medical facilities. Their families are here."

Washington’s stance is now likely to toughen. In a sign of the changing approach, a suspected U.S. drone strike on June 13 killed a Haqqani network commander in northwestern Pakistan. The network, named after distinguished Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, is seen as the potent military wing of the Taliban that specializes in complex urban attacks.

Kabul blamed the network for a devastating tanker bomb that killed more than 150 people in Kabul on May 31. But Sirajuddin Haqqani, the purported leader of the network and the deputy leader of the Taliban, denied responsibility for the attack, which targeted a square near foreign embassies in the Afghan capital.

In a departure from former U.S. President Barack Obama’s approach to Afghanistan, Mattis did not mention the need for a negotiated solution to the Afghan war between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Earlier this month, the former Marine Corps general outlined his thinking on the prospects of a negotiated solution with the Taliban by stating Washington is unlikely to surrender civilization to people who cannot win at the ballot box.

“We’re up against an enemy that knows they cannot win at the ballot box,” he told journalists in Sydney on June 5. “That’s why they use bombs, because ballots would ensure they never had a role to play. They cannot win the support, the affection, the respect of the Afghan people.”

Mattis, however, left room for diplomacy, speaking of the need to analyze conflicts across the region.

“We’ve got to determine what level of support is necessary and how we orchestrate the international community -- not just the Americans -- to deal with this,” he said.

While Mattis did not say how many troops would be added to the 10,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, he sees the Afghan forces carrying “the bulk of the fighting.”

Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee that U.S. options include reversing negative security trends in Afghanistan.

The departure of most NATO troops in 2014 emboldened the Taliban to capture territory. While Afghan military casualties have spiked sharply, successive UN reports have blamed the insurgents for multiplying civilian casualties.

“This is not about us being in the fight,” he told the congressional panel. “It is about us doing things for the Afghans to be more successful than they have been over the last two summers.”

Mattis indicated the new approach will factor in the need for a longer-term commitment to stability.

"We are going to have to recognize that problems that come out of ungoverned spaces like that what we experienced on 9/11 do not stay there,” he said. “They can come home to roost here."