U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made an unexpected trip to Afghanistan Monday.
The visit presented an opportunity for the U.S. government to lay out its strategy for the country, which has been embroiled in a 15 year-war following the U.S. invasion in 2001. Mattis, who served in the country during the initial outbreak of the war, is capping off his first tour as a member of the Trump administration (he visited several Middle Eastern countries, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.)
But his arrival in Kabul came in the midst of tragedy, further highlighting U.S. failures in the country.
Shortly after morning prayers on Friday, Taliban militants disguised as soldiers drove into northern Afghanistan’s largest military base and began a rampage. At least 140 soldiers were killed, making the attack the worst a military base has seen in the war so far, and yet another sign that Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency problems remain staggering.
Afghanistan has struggled under the weight of deadly attacks and exhausting violence. War with the Soviet Union raged for a decade before Soviet troops fully withdrew in 1988, and two bloody civil wars concluded with the Taliban taking over. This period came to an abrupt end in 2001, when the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan kicked off another war, one that has claimed thousands of lives and seen no end to the nation’s hardships.
What happened on Friday was shocking in its scope, but unsurprising in its target. More than 6,700 Afghans serving in the military have been killed during the war — three times the number of their U.S. counterparts. The Afghan government has frequently asked for greater U.S. assistance, but past administrations have made it clear that the country is not a high priority, as U.S. officials have said that other countries, like Syria and Iraq, are of greater importance. Both the Bush and Obama administrations failed to bring the war to a close, and modern-day Afghanistan is as precarious as it has ever been, subject to the whims of Western governments as much as the militants feuding for control.
That the Trump administration does not seem to have much of a strategy in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly clear. Two weeks ago, the United States dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb, known as the “Massive Ordnance Air Blast” (MOAB, or, “Mother of All Bombs”), in the eastern province of Nangarhar. A tunnel system used by ISIS was the bombing’s stated target, and Afghan officials have said that more than 100 militants and no civilians were killed. Still, details about the full extent of the damage remain murky, and the administration’s aims in dropping the bomb remain unclear, something that reflects its wider policy when it comes to Afghanistan.
While some Afghan officials welcomed the bombing, others were far more critical. Current President Ashraf Ghani approved of the bomb, but former President Hamid Karzai characteristically slammed its use.
“This was an inhuman act, a brutal act against an innocent country, against innocent people, against our land, against our sovereignty, against our soil and against our future,” Karzai said. “A bomb of that magnitude has consequences for the environment, for our lives, for our plants, for our water, for our soil — this is poison.”
ISIS has increasingly made inroads in Afghanistan, and the Trump administration has repeatedly called for destroying the organization. But the Taliban remain a strong force, something Friday’s attack made painfully clear, as have others in recent months.
A devastating attack on a Kabul hospital in March was also claimed by ISIS, but the BBC noted that eyewitnesses said they had heard pro-Taliban slogans shouted during the siege, and the actual culprit still remains unconfirmed. Both incidents call into question the Trump administration’s focus on ISIS over the Taliban, as well as the ability of U.S. officials to effectively identify the problems plaguing the country, many of which have been exacerbated by foreign missteps.
Mattis is not the first administration official to visit Afghanistan. In a visit that caught numerous Pentagon officials off-guard, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster visited last week, meeting with Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to discuss security matters and internal corruption.
Unlike his predecessor, who looked to reduce the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Trump’s administration may seek to do the opposite — at least, if it heeds the requests of officials. General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has asked for several thousand additional foreign troops. At present nearly 9,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, with no sign of withdrawal in sight. Nicholson’s request, if granted, would probably see that number grow by 3,000 to 5,000 more troops.
Some are skeptical about this approach. Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, questioned the strategy.
“Let’s face it, no matter how many troops you may send to Afghanistan it is going to be very difficult to end the war,” he said to Reuters. “We had 100,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan during [the] height of the surge and we didn’t end the war.”
Lacking a plan to tackle an unending war is only one of the issues Mattis has to contend with. Afghanistan is also bleeding military leadership. Following Friday’s attack, both Afghanistan’s defense minister and army chief of staff resigned from their positions. While no explanation was given for the departures, Afghans have expressed anger at their government’s seeming inability to protect residents from Taliban insurgents.