KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan to meet with Afghan leaders and U.S. military officials Monday, taking a fresh look at a 15-year war where he served during its first optimistic months.
Mattis’ visit capped a six-country tour through the Middle East, his first as secretary of defense, and comes as the Trump administration considers additional troops to fight the Taliban and defeat ISIS across the region.
His top commander in the country, Gen. John Nicholson, has told Congress he believes the war is at a “stalemate” and has suggested that the NATO coalition needs several thousand more troops to turn the tide. There are approximately 8,400 U.S. personnel serving in Afghanistan.
Neither Mattis nor President Donald Trump has given a public indication if they support Nicholson’s request for additional troops.
Highlighting the immense challenges facing the country's government as well as its foreign backers, a massive Taliban attack on an Afghan military compound killed at least 100 soldiers and other personnel on Friday. The attack, in which gunmen and suicide bombers stormed the compound wearing army uniforms, was so significant that it triggered the resignations of Afghanistan's Defense Minister and its Chief of Army Staff.
Earlier this month, Nicholson ordered the use of the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in America’s arsenal, the so-called “Mother of All Bombs” on an ISIS complex. The damage it did is still not known.
“Digging into tunnels to count dead bodies is probably not a good use of our troops’ time when they are chasing down the enemy that’s still capable,” Mattis said in Tel Aviv earlier on the trip.
Nicholson, a four-star general, did not request permission from Mattis before dropping the 21,000-pound bomb, according to Defense Department officials, sending a perhaps unintended message about the Trump administration’s willingness to use a massive ordinance at a moment when tensions are running high in North Korea and Syria.
Both Trump and Mattis have signaled that they want to empower their commanders on the ground and have not publicly rebuked Nicholson.
The dropping of the MOAB has also sent political shockwaves across Afghanistan’s fragile political system, with former President Hamid Karzai calling the incident an "atrocity" and labeling current President Ashraf Ghani a “traitor” for allowing its use.
Mattis’ visit follows a trip by Trump’s national security adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster eight days ago. He rebuked the Karzai government and attempted to bolster Ghani's rule, while signaling that a more robust U.S. fighting posture could come.
“We didn’t have as a reliable partner in the Afghan government as we would have liked,” he said. “Our enemy sensed that and they have redoubled their efforts and it’s time for us, alongside our Afghan partners, to respond.”
While the U.S. was instrumental in helping Karzai become Afghanistan's leader after America helped topple the Taliban in 2001, the relationship between Kabul and Washing became fractious. Ties between the two countries grew warmer again after Ghani was elected in 2014.