WASHINGTON – After months of sometimes heated internal debate, the Trump administration has almost reached a decision on a new approach for fighting the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday. He gave no hint of what the strategy would look like.
In remarks at the State Department, Mattis told reporters President Donald Trump will confer with his national security team Friday at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, and said the talks "will move this toward a decision."
"We are coming very close to a decision, and I anticipate it in the very near future," he added.
Months ago the Pentagon had settled on a plan to send approximately 3,800 additional troops to help strengthen the Afghan army, which is stuck in what some call a deteriorating stalemate with the Taliban insurgency. Some in the White House have questioned the wisdom of investing further resources in the war, which is the longest in American history.
The administration has said its Afghanistan strategy will be informed by a review of its approach to the broader region, including Pakistan and India. The Taliban have long used Pakistan as a sanctuary, complicating efforts to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan and stabilize the country.
The outlook in Afghanistan is clouded by the government's struggle to halt Taliban advances on its own. In its most recent report, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said the Taliban hold sway in almost half the country.
Government forces also are battling an Islamic State affiliate that has carved out a foothold mostly in eastern Afghanistan. Trump has vowed to crush IS, so the affiliate in Afghanistan poses an additional challenge with no immediate solution. Just this week, a U.S. soldier was killed and nearly a dozen were wounded in combat with the IS affiliate.
The U.S. has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. Their primary roles are to train and advise Afghan forces and to hunt down and kill members of al-Qaida and other extremist groups.
Trump has expressed frustration at the prolonged fighting in Afghanistan. Earlier this summer he raised the idea of firing the top U.S. commander there, Gen. John Nicholson. On July 18, he said, "I want to find out why we've been there for 17 years."
Asked Monday if Trump has confidence in Nicholson, Mattis demurred.
"Ask the president," Mattis said. "I will tell you right now, he is our commander in the field, he has the confidence of NATO, he has the confidence of Afghanistan, he has the confidence of the United States."
Trump is "looking at all aspects" of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan "as he must in his responsibilities as the commander in chief," Mattis said.
Lawmakers in Congress also are frustrated by the war and the prolonged debate within the administration on how to break the stalemate. Last week, Republican Sen. John McCain declared that "America is adrift in Afghanistan." He proposed a war strategy that would expand the U.S. counterterrorism effort and provide greater support to Afghan security forces.
"Nearly seven months into President Trump's administration, we've had no strategy at all as conditions on the ground have steadily worsened," said McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The thousands of Americans putting their lives on the line in Afghanistan deserve better from their commander in chief."
McCain said bluntly, "We are losing in Afghanistan and time is of the essence if we intend to turn the tide."