U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis landed in Afghanistan Wednesday on an unannounced visit – his first since the White House unveiled a revised plan for the U.S.-led war here.
Mattis landed in Kabul, his second stop on a South Asia tour that began in New Delhi.
President Donald Trump’s Afghanistan plan, announced last month, envisions a greater role for regional players, including India, to help break the deadlock with Taliban insurgents.
During his stop in the Indian capital, Mattis praised India’s “invaluable” contributions to Afghanistan, and welcomed “further efforts to promote Afghanistan’s democracy, stability, and security.”
Mattis’ Indian counterpart, Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, promised to strengthen cooperation with Kabul, though he ruled out sending any Indian troops there.
The U.S. plan calls for a larger military presence in Afghanistan. Mattis recently announced the U.S. would send another 3,000 American troops, bringing the total number in the country to over 14,000.
Trump’s plan also calls for more bombs. Official military figures show the U.S. dropped more weapons (503) on Afghanistan during August than in any other single month since 2012.
In a stalemate after 16 years of fighting, U.S. troops are involved primarily in a non-combat role, providing advice and assistance to Afghan defense forces and institutions.
Trump has stressed that the U.S. troops will only be withdrawn based on conditions on the ground, and has refused to set fixed withdrawal dates, as did his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The conditions-based approach has been welcomed by Afghan officials, who say it provides more certainty and won’t allow the Taliban to wait out the timelines.
“They haven’t given timelines or withdrawal dates, which is a positive thing,” said Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a senior Afghan diplomat in Washington.
“I am very optimistic about this, and we welcome the current strategy,” he told VOA.
But Trump officials have refused to say exactly what metrics they will use to define success in Afghanistan, leading some to worry about the threat of a perpetual war.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” said Shamila Chaudhary, who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan policy in Obama’s National Security Council. “That without actually announcing or detailing what the conditions are, that there will always be enough of a reason for us to stay in Afghanistan.”
The Trump administration hopes its more assertive stance in Afghanistan will result in enough military gains to pressure the Taliban to the negotiating table.
But for now, there seems to be little reason for the insurgents to lay down their weapons. Currently, the U.S.-backed Kabul government controls only around 60 percent of the country; the Taliban controls or contests the other 40 percent.
Another key part of the White House strategy is putting pressure on Pakistan to end its alleged support for Afghan militant groups.
Like the Obama administration, Trump officials have put increasing pressure on Pakistan – a continuity welcomed by Afghan officials.
“We didn’t put enough pressure on Pakistan to prevent them from supporting militant groups,” says Katawazai. “I hope the current administration uses more of a stick policy instead of a carrot.”
Mattis and Sitharaman addressed that issue on Tuesday.
“The very same forces which find safe haven in Pakistan have been the ones who have hit New York, as much as Mumbai,” Sitharaman said, adding she raised the matter directly with Mattis.
Though Mattis did not mention Pakistan directly, he added: “There can be no tolerance of terrorist safe havens.”
Mattis flew directly over Pakistan on his flight from New Delhi to Kabul. U.S. officials denied that was meant as a slight to Pakistan, and insisted Islamabad should not worry about expanded Indian involvement in Afghanistan.
“Pakistan has come out recently again, saying they are fighting the terrorists,” Mattis told reporters. “I think Pakistan will find nothing out of line with India and the United States’ alignment in the same fight.”