WASHINGTON – Afghanistan, America's longest military fight, is getting little attention so far from the Trump administration despite the protracted struggle to rein in the Taliban and battle a stubborn Islamic State affiliate there.
The conflict, now in its 16th year, got only a peripheral mention during President Donald Trump's visit Monday to U.S. Central Command, which oversees the conflicts in the Middle East. And there's little discussion of a revamped policy to beef up the Afghan security forces as they work to make their country secure.
America, Trump said in Tampa, expresses its gratitude to "everyone serving overseas, including our military personnel in Afghanistan." That was it for a conflict that includes about 8,400 U.S. troops conducting counterterrorism operations against insurgents, and training and advising Afghanistan's military.
The contrast with the U.S. effort to defeat IS in Iraq and Syria has been striking. While Trump has given the Pentagon 30 days to come up with a new plan to defeat the self-described caliphate, there has been no similar order for Afghanistan. It's unclear if the White House simply wants to maintain Obama administration policies to bolster Afghan forces and keep some U.S. troops in the country for counterterror missions.
The Taliban has had "advances and eroded some of our successes," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last month in his confirmation hearing, another venue where the Afghanistan conflict attracted scant interest. The silence has in some ways reinforced the notion of Afghanistan as a modern-day "forgotten war."
At the Pentagon, however, there is widespread expectation Mattis will take a hard look at the campaign. A retired Marine general, Mattis commanded troops there in the early days of the war, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He is a strong supporter of the NATO coalition spearheading training and advising efforts.
Mattis spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday, a day marked by a suicide bombing at the country's Supreme Court in Kabul that killed at least 19 people. Recent attacks increasingly have targeted Afghanistan's judiciary, underscoring the nation's challenges.
Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is expected to update Congress on the war on Thursday.
Only four months ago, the Afghanistan fight was described as a stalemate. In testimony to Congress last September, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Afghan forces were taking a lot of casualties. Nicholson was slightly more upbeat in December, saying the forces made progress last year despite being tested.
"What we're seeing right now is what I would call an equilibrium, but one that's in favor of the government," Nicholson said at the time.
The Taliban controls about 10 percent of the population, he said. Afghanistan's government controls about two-thirds; the rest is contested.
Of the American forces in Afghanistan, more than 2,100 are conducting counterterrorism missions. The remainder are part of the training and advisory mission. Another several hundred U.S. forces are stationed outside the country, but can quickly deploy into the warzone from elsewhere in the region.
The military says U.S. forces conducted more than 1,000 strikes in Afghanistan last year, including 267 against the Islamic State Khorasan Province group, IS' Afghan affiliate. Fifty-seven targeted al-Qaida.
About 300 Marines are scheduled to deploy to southern Afghanistan in April to help beef up the Afghan Army's 215th Corps.
Corruption and leadership problems within the Afghan security forces are key concerns. Nicholson said those will be the focus this winter, as Afghans work to replace corrupt and ineffective leaders and get the troops the equipment, ammunition and food they need to fight.
At a NATO summit last July, the U.S. and its allies reaffirmed their commitment to Afghanistan, pledging about $800 million to support its security forces through 2020.
The U.S. has promised $3.5 billion annually to fund Afghan forces, and the government in Kabul is expected to contribute as much as $500 million. The funding would maintain a total of 352,000 Afghan Army troops and police officers.