Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford speak to reporters during a news conference at the Pentagon, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018 in Washington.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford speak to reporters during a news conference at the Pentagon, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018 in Washington. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Downplaying Ghazni, Mattis Defends Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy

The Taliban’s apparent willingness to negotiate is the more important signal of progress in America’s longest war, the defense secretary said Tuesday.

Two weeks after the Taliban bloodied Afghan security forces in a five-day battle for a key eastern city, Defense Secretary James Mattis insisted that President Trump’s strategy is drawing the insurgents to the negotiating table and, ultimately, will allow the U.S. to bring an end to the country’s longest war.

A similar claim by the outgoing head of operations in that country, Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, was met last week with skepticism.

Nicholson and Mattis argue that a successful three-day ceasefire in June and nascent efforts by the Taliban to participate in peace talks may mark a turning point in the 17-year-old war. Individual battles and other short term military ebbs and flows—even ones as fiercely contested as this month’s assault on Ghazni—are less important markers of progress, they say.

“There’s a lot more to this than purely traditional military ‘Who shot who, today,'” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday.

“Even the idea a year ago, if we said there’ll be a ceasefire at some point in the next year, I think we would have had a very hard time convincing you of that. Now we can point to that in the rearview mirror.”

Mattis pointed to a recent statement by a Taliban leader that suggested a willingness to engage in dialogue, calling it “one of the most forward-leaning statements made yet by a Taliban leader even as they conduct attacks designed to garner press attention.”

During the five-day assault on Ghazni, Taliban forces overran parts of the city and inflicted hundreds of Afghan casualties. Some critics saw it as evidence that the ceasefire wasn’t the harbinger of serious peace talks it had once been hoped to be. And because the U.S. was forced to call in air strikes to counter the attack, it ignited deep-seated skepticism that the time and money the U.S. has invested in training and equipping Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban on their own has actually allowed U.S. troops to step back from a traditional combat role.

But Mattis dismissed the significance of Ghazni in the context of the broader conflict. He argued that not only did Taliban forces fail to achieve specific military objectives, like taking the city’s provincial police headquarters, they continue to be unable to hold gains in territory. Their ability to “shoot up the residential neighborhoods [and] chase the police out where they outnumbered them, outgunned them” is not “emblematic” of the state of the conflict, he said. Afghan security forces are still in the field despite heavy casualties and “now the Taliban is talking about ceasefires because they can’t avoid it.”

“Yeah, it’s a tough fight,” Mattis said drily, when a reporter pointed out Taliban gains in smaller Afghan bases in more far-flung regions of the country.

The Trump administration has been under growing pressure to show that its year-old South Asia strategy is gainfully improving the situation in Afghanistan—a seemingly interminable conflict that has claimed thousands of U.S. lives and could soon be older than some of its American participants. Senior military leaders over the years have claimed evidence of “progress,” an assessment that often appeared premature in hindsight and which some critics have come to see as naive.

More recently, Nicholson and other senior military leaders have told Congress that the military conflict has “stalemated.” The strategic balance of power has remained essentially the same, with the Afghan government largely in control of the cities and the Taliban seizing territory in the more remote reaches of the country. (As of May, 12 percent of Afghans lived in areas under Taliban control or influence, while 23 percent lived in contested areas, according to the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.)

Still, outside analysts have agreed—cautiously—that the June ceasefire was an extraordinary moment that could herald legitimate dialogue. Graeme Smith, a consultant for the International Crisis Group, argued on this week’s Defense One Radio podcast that it “has dramatically changed our understanding of the war” because it gave leaders from both sides the confidence that their counterparts speak from a place of authority for their represented parties.

“The ceasefire that holds 98 percent speaks about a discipline,” Afghan President Afghan Ghani told Defense One in July. “You have an interlocutor that you have to take seriously.”

The U.S. and the Taliban reportedly have opened a bilateral channel with Ghani’s blessing.

Plans for Afghan-Taliban talks in Moscow, which were not to include U.S. officials, were postponed this week. The Taliban also declined to participate in a three-month ceasefire proposed by Ghani to coincide with Eid al-Adha, a major Islamic holiday.

Mattis, like Nicholson, tried to give Trump’s strategy some political breathing room. He was careful to downplay expectations about a timeline for success, repeatedly characterizing it as a “hard fight” and insisting officials knew from the beginning that it “would take time.”

He repeatedly sought to show that the plan has international backing. He pointed to a small boost in non-U.S. NATO troops announced at the summit in Brussels this summer and noted that the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have recently joined the NATO-led Resolute Support mission. And when pressed on whether the U.S. is effectively maintaining a permanent presence in Afghanistan rather than engaging in a discrete military conflict, Mattis responded by noting that there are 39 governments with some troop presence in Afghanistan.

“It’s not a U.S. presence alone and it shouldn’t be implied that way,” he said.

But the U.S. contributes by far the bulk of troops participating in the Resolute Support mission. U.S. personnel outnumber those of partner nations by multiple thousands.

Mattis on Tuesday also threw cold water on one controversial alternative to long-term U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, a privatization proposal that has been shopped around by Blackwater founder Erik Prince in various iterations for years.

“When the Americans put their nation’s credibility on the line, privatizing it is probably not a wise idea,” he said briefly.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.