By Paul D. Shinkman
Amid troubling reports of the situation on the ground, the defense secretary offered insight into Trump’s decision to extend the war.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pushed back against questions from increasingly skeptical members of Congress on Tuesday about why the U.S. is still at war in Afghanistan amid persistent reports of corruption and abuse by leaders there.
A day after the Pentagon indicated it was sending more troops into its longest war, the defense chief faced tough questioning from the House Armed Services Committee on why the U.S. should keep investing money and sending young troops into a war that, by some accounts, appears increasingly unwinnable.
“There has got to be a time when you say to President Trump, ‘We’ve done all we can do. Blood and treasure has been lost, and we have nothing to show we have gained, except we still have trouble with the leaders of Afghanistan having sex with little boys,'” Rep. Walter Jones told Mattis after the North Carolina Republican had recited a series of headlines critical of the war, including reports about the cultural acceptability of pedophelia and its prevalence within the Afghan military and police.
“If we were engaged in conquering Afghanistan,” Mattis replied, “I would agree 100 percent with what you just stated, if that was our sense of empire. In fact, what we are doing to earn the trust of the American people is to ensure another 9/11 hatched out of there does not happen under our watch.”
Trump, who campaigned for president against U.S. foreign adventures and claimed he would end the war in Afghanistan, made an abrupt change in August when his White House announced it would adopt a new regional policy for the war – including taking Pakistan to task for reportedly harboring terrorists from the Taliban and the Haqqani network – and that it would deploy as many as 4,000 new forces.
The Defense Department announced Monday that combat successes in Iraq against the Islamic State group allowed it to “tailor its forces,” as stated by Army Brig. Gen. Jonathan Braga, director of operations for the headquarters overseeing the U.S. war against the extremist group, reportedly to shift them to Afghanistan instead.
Mattis, who testified about new strategy documents the department released in recent weeks, told the committee Tuesday that in forming the new strategy Trump had “challenged every assumption” and that it “took months to put it together to answer every question he had.”
“The gravity of protecting the American people caused him to change his mind based off what intel sources told him was the vulnerability we would have if we pulled out of there,” Mattis said.
The new strategy has been embraced by NATO and India, he added, noting that NATO has the support of the Afghan people, which neither the Taliban nor the Haqqani network do.
“Which means the Afghan boys will continue to carry the load for fighting, but now with advisers that bring the NATO air support and fire support to help them,” Mattis said.
Some estimates indicate the Taliban controls as much as 70 percent of territory in Afghanistan. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, a spokesman for the Defense Department’s Joint Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday that number is more like 10 to 15 percent, with the central government in Kabul controlling 60 percent of the country.
Mattis indicated Tuesday the U.S. would consider negotiations with the Taliban, saying, “we believe the regionally aligned strategy will draw more allies, and it puts the enemies on a path towards accepting reconciliation.”
Trump told reporters last week, “I don’t see any talking taking place.”
The secretary also responded to criticism from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, which in its latest report released last week said the Defense Department had instructed the congressionally mandated watchdog “not to release to the public data on the number of districts, and the population living in them, controlled or influenced by the Afghan government or by the insurgents, or contested by both.”
Mattis said that decision was a bureaucratic mistake and that the department had corrected it.