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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

US in Afghanistan: Mattis confirms Trump administration has decided on new strategy

But Donald Trump's defence secretary refused to discuss the long-awaited new policy on US involvement in Afghanistan until it had been disclosed by the president

US defence secretary James Mattis speaks to reporters on board a flight to Jordan for the start of a regional tour on August 20, 2017. Paul Handley / AFP
US defence secretary James Mattis speaks to reporters on board a flight to Jordan for the start of a regional tour on August 20, 2017. Paul Handley / AFP

US defence secretary Jim Mattis confirmed on Sunday that the Trump administration had formulated its new Afghanistan war strategy but refused to provide further details.

It came two days after president Donald Trump met with generals at Camp David to discuss options for future US involvement in the 16-year-old war.

Three days following his huddle with his Generals at Camp David, Donald Trump will be announcing his Afghanistan strategy on Monday night as he tries to turn the tide in the 16-year-old-war, the longest in US recent history.

The White House announced on Sunday that Mr Trump will address US troops and the American people Monday night at 9:00 p.m ET, from Fort Myer base in Virginia.

The President will “provide an update on the path forward for America’s engagement in Afghanistan and South Asia” following his meeting with his Generals on Friday, as US defence Secretary James Mattis arrived in Jordan to update Washington’s allies on the policy.

"I am very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous," Mr Mattis said aboard a military aircraft en route to Jordan where he is due to meet on Monday with Jordan's King Abdullah and his senior military officers.

The defence secretary refused to talk about the administration's long-awaited new policy on Afghanistan until it had been disclosed by Mr Trump, however.

On Saturday, the president tweeted that "many decisions" had been made at the Camp David meeting a day before, "including on Afghanistan”, but did not elaborate.

After the meeting at Camp David on Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the president had been "briefed extensively by his national security team on a new strategy to protect America's interests in South Asia".

"The president is studying and considering his options and will make an announcement to the American people, to our allies and partners, and to the world at the appropriate time," she added.

Stephen Tankel, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) think tank in Washington, said the administration's delay in revealing its strategy for Afghanistan had not gone unnoticed by those in the region.

“This strategy is certainly overdue, well beyond when the administration said it would be ready," he told The National. Up until the Camp David meeting, Mr Trump had “seemed disengaged” from the Afghanistan process, the expert said, “which makes the delay in presenting a strategy worse because our partners and adversaries in the [Afghanistan] region have noticed”.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, Mr Mattis and national security adviser HR McMaster were all present at the meeting, along with senior intelligence agency officials and military and diplomatic aides. But the absence of the president's son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was forced out of his job on Friday, suggested Mr Trump was leaning towards the recommendations of generals in his administration, who have been backing a modest troop surge alongside a political process.

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Both Mr Kushner and Mr Bannon had been flirting with the idea of privatising American involvement in the war — swapping government troops for contractors in line with a proposal by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater. That plan “entails sending 5,500 contractors to Afghanistan to embed with Afghan National Security Forces, and appointing a ‘viceroy’ to oversee the whole endeavour”, according to The Atlantic.

Mr Tankel said outsourcing the battle in Afghanistan was the “worst of all options” open to the Trump administration.

“Whatever the potential marginal benefits of Erik Prince's plan financially, the costs outweigh them,” he said.

“His scheme would wreak havoc on our foreign policy and military apparatus, by alienating allies and partners and providing our enemies with a great recruiting material.”

Mr Tankel also questioned the loyalty of a private military force.

“Is it for the US or for the highest bidder? That's the problem with mercenaries,” he added.

The expert outlined three alternative strategies Mr Trump could take: one, withdrawing from Afghanistan entirely; two, kicking the can down the road, in other words delaying making a decision for the foreseeable future; and three, increasing the number of US forces in Afghanistan alongside a realistic diplomatic strategy aimed at reaching a political settlement to the conflict.

The last option has the support of the generals around Mr Trump, including Mr Mattis, who headed US Central Command before retiring in 2013, and Mr McMaster, who served with Central Command during the Iraq war in the early 2000s and headed an anti-corruption and transparency task force in Afghanistan.

“The main argument in favour of a limited troop increase is that if it were open-ended (unlike former US president Barack Obama's surge) and tied to a realistic political strategy then it could create conditions (by pressuring the Taliban) for a negotiated settlement acceptable to the United States,” Mr Tankel said.

US president Donald Trump walks from Marine One to board Air Force One as he departs Hagerstown, Maryland, after his meeting at nearby Camp David with the national security council on August 18, 2017. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
US president Donald Trump walks from Marine One to board Air Force One as he departs Hagerstown, Maryland, after his meeting at nearby Camp David with the national security council on August 18, 2017. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The US currently has around 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. Mr Trump, like the wider American public, has expressed his fatigue over the longest foreign war in American history and the inability of two presidents before him to achieve a decisive win against the Taliban.

A recent poll conducted by the Morning Consult and Politico showed that 23 per cent of Americans believe the US is winning the war in Afghanistan, while 38 per cent believe it is losing.

The same poll showed that 37 per cent of Americans support gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan, while 24 per cent support the status quo and only 20 per cent support increasing troop level numbers. More than 2,000 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan and the civilian death toll has well surpassed the 31,000 figure, according to figures from Brown University.

Yet, with the emergence and rise of ISIL in the war between the US-backed Afghan government and militants and a strengthened Taliban, “the major risk related to withdrawal is that Afghanistan once again becomes a safe haven for international terrorists”, warned Mr Tankel.

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“There are also concerns about rival nations filling the void or major refugee flows if Afghanistan collapsed.”

Mr Trump may also be looking at replacing the top US commander in the war, General John Nicholson. The military official was not at Camp David, and when Mr Mattis was asked if Gen Nicholson’s job was safe, his response of “ask the president” was not exactly a statement of confidence in the general.

The administration's Afghanistan review is also looking at America's wider policy towards Afghanistan beyond military involvement, including more vigorous US investment in the country's natural resources.

“Mr Trump is right to ask tough questions” about Afghanistan, said Mr Tankel.

He cautioned, however, that “looking for an easy way out and having a knee jerk opposition to anything that resembles a Barack Obama policy, are a bad combination in terms of strategy making” for the prolonged conflict.

* Additional reporting by Associated Press

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