- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2017

A surprise visit by Defense Secretary James Mattis to Afghanistan on Monday has fueled speculation that the Trump administration may be close to a new battle plan for the 16-year-old war.

In his first visit to the country as Pentagon chief, tacked onto a larger diplomatic trip to meet with U.S. allies in Africa and the Middle East, Mr. Mattis pulled no punches over the state of the fighting.

He arrived at a low point for Afghan Security Forces in the three years since President Obama ended the U.S. combat mission. Thousands of American troops remain as advisers and trainers.

Over 200 Afghan soldiers were killed during a complex attack on a key military headquarters in the country’s north on Friday. The Taliban attack on the headquarters for the Afghan army’s 209th Shaheen corps in Balkh province was the single largest loss of life suffered by the country’s security forces since 2001. Also on Monday, a police official said at least four security guards were killed when a suicide bomber attacked their checkpoint in eastern Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani forced Defense Minister Abdullah Habibi and Army Chief of Staff Qadam Shah Shahim to resign by in the aftermath of Friday’s attack.

In the Taliban’s detailed statement on the attack, posted on the militant group’s website, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that four of the 10 attackers in Balkh were disguised as soldiers.

The statement said the attack was in retaliation for the killing of the Taliban shadow governor of Kunduz province, Mullah Abdul Salam Akhund, and threatened more violence against the army and police, saying “this year’s operations will be painful.”

In a joint briefing in Kabul with Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Mr. Mattis said he was “under no illusions” over the multitude of threats to the country’s fragile security situation.

Mr. Mattis made his stop in Afghanistan shortly after another surprise visit by a top administration official. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster visited U.S. and coalition headquarters in Kabul this month, the first trip of its kind since his predecessor Jim Jones landed in 2009 shortly before Mr. Obama ordered a temporary U.S. troop surge.

The administration has remained mum on its plans for Afghanistan, and Mr. Trump gave the war short shrift on the campaign trail. But the visit by Mr. Mattis, who once commanded the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade in southern Afghanistan, has fueled speculation that the White House may be close to a way forward.

Gen. Nicholson and Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel have publicly voiced their support for more American and NATO forces in the country. Currently, 8,500 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan advising and assisting Afghan forces.

Gen. Nicholson on Monday would not deny that Russia, in a revival of Cold War rivalries over Afghanistan, is providing weapons and equipment to the Taliban. Declining to provide specifics, the general said he would “not refute” charges that Moscow has been providing material support to the insurgency to weaken the U.S.-based Ghani government.

Prior to Friday’s deadly assault in Balkh, U.S. forces used one of the most powerful, non-nuclear weapons in the American arsenal against Islamic State targets in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. It was the first time the 22,000-pound munition, dubbed “the mother of all bombs,” had been used in combat.

Its use has raised doubts over the overall direction of the war. Critics question why U.S. commanders were forced to use a weapon of that magnitude in a conflict that American and Afghan forces have been fighting for nearly two decades.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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