U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has warned that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan would be "to our ultimate peril," as he briefed Congress on plans to increase American troop levels in the war-torn country.
"Based on intelligence community analysis and my own evaluation, I am convinced we would absent ourselves from this region at our peril," Mattis said on October 3 during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The administration of President Donald Trump recently unveiled a strategy to try to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan after nearly 16 years of war.
Mattis said that more than 3,000 additional U.S. troops are being sent to Afghanistan to reinforce the 11,000 U.S. troops already stationed in the country.
The defense secretary added that Afghan security forces were fully engaged in offensive military operations for the first time during the conflict, adding that they were suffering fewer casualties as they continue to improve.
He also said that the United States will soon decide whether to keep open a Taliban office in Qatar as America steps up its Afghan war effort.
Mattis said he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been "in contact on this issue three times in the past 10 days."
"He is looking to make certain we have the right [Taliban representatives], so it's just not an office in existence," he added.
General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate committee that it's currently a stalemate in Afghanistan.
"We're not at a point where we can bring a successful political solution to the war," he said.
The top U.S. military commander also said that he thinks Pakistan's main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has ties to militant groups.
"It is clear to me that the ISI has connections with terrorist groups," he said.
An important component of the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is a threat to withdraw aid and other support for Pakistan if the country continues to tolerate the presence of the Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani network, which are leading the insurgency against Afghan and U.S. forces.
Islamabad denies that it is offering safe havens to extremist groups,
At the opening of the hearing, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that the Trump administration has failed to inform Congress of the details of the new strategy in Afghanistan.
He also said that it was "bizarre" that Mattis and Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not submit written testimony before the hearing started.
"We want to be your partners," McCain said. "But this committee will not be a rubber stamp for any policy or president. We must be well-informed. We must be convinced of the merits of the administration's actions. And unfortunately, we still have far more questions than answers about this new strategy."
The Afghan government is struggling to beat back insurgents in the wake of the exit of most NATO forces in 2014.
A U.S. report found earlier this year that the Taliban controls or contests control of about 40 percent of the country, and security forces are also fighting against militants affiliated with the extremist group Islamic State (IS).
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP