Mattis visit hints towards a shift in US Afghan Policy – Tahir Khan

(Image Source: AFP)

James Mattis, the U.S. Secretary of Defence, who flew into Kabul on an unannounced visit on April 24, pledged support to the Afghan leaders and called the Taliban a “barbaric enemy” after they killed nearly 150 security personnel inside a highly-secured army base in Mazar-e-Sharif.  Tolo News, the leading Afghanistan news network, claimed the death toll was close to 250, accusing the government of “covering up” the actual death toll.

As the Taliban’s massive attack on the “209 Shaheen Army Corps” shook the whole country, a high level visit from a US official, in form of Mr Mattis, provided some relief for the beleaguered Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, who is also under constant fire for his government’s failure to deal with the growing security challenges.

Mattis was the second top American official to travel to the war-ravaged country in a week as President Donald Trump had earlier sent his national security adviser H.R. McMaster to meet top Afghan leaders. The timing of Mr Mattis’s visit is crucial as the Afghan security forces are preparing for the annual fighting season.

Speaking alongside John Nicholson, the top American general in Afghanistan, the defence secretary told reporters that President Donald J. Trump has directed a review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. “This dictates an ongoing dialogue with Afghanistan’s leadership,” he said, “and that’s why I came here: to get with President Ghani and his ministers and hear directly and at length from them”. Mattis also tasked Gen. Nicholson to provide assessment and advice as the Trump administration moves towards a new policy in Afghanistan.

Mr Mattis recognized the challenges ahead and said, “2017 is going to be another tough year for the valiant Afghan security forces and the international troops who have stood, and will continue to stand, shoulder to shoulder with Afghanistan against terrorism.”

The high profile visits to Kabul took place amid Trump’s review of the Afghan policy. In February Gen. Nicholson requested several thousand troops from Washington to break what he called a “stalemate.” Speaking at the Senate armed services committee, he pointed out a “shortfall of a few thousand,” acknowledging that the Taliban have gained territory across the country in 2016. Currently, 8,600 American troops are part of nearly 15,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan.

The Taliban sources confirmed to me that their military commission has been strengthened and Ibrahim Sadar – military affairs’ in-charge of 22 provinces, Mullah Yaqoob – who look after the military affairs of 12 provinces, and the former military chief Abdul Qayyum Zakir, recently toured southern parts of Afghanistan to oversee preparations for the upcoming “Spring Offensive.” Qayyum Zakir was among the several senior commanders who had been inactive under Akhtar Mansour, but Siraj ud Din Haqqani succeeded to bring him back.

The Taliban are now taking advantage from the military experience of Zakir.  Haqqani, the Taliban deputy chief, is himself monitoring the military activities in eastern parts of the country. With a harsh tone for the Taliban, Mr Mattis did not close the chapter of political process. He called on the Taliban to work honestly for a positive future for the Afghan people. “They need only to renounce violence and reject terrorism. It’s a pretty low standard to join the political process”, he added.

It is unfortunate that the U.S., the Kabul administration and the Taliban are constantly talking about political processes and dialogue, however, neither side has shown seriousness to shift focus on reconciliation. The three sides must take the blame for the one of the world’s longest wars, which now mostly takes the lives of innocent Afghan civilians.  Also, the Taliban leaders, who are always hinting towards a political option, have rarely displayed seriousness towards a negotiated settlement. The Taliban leaders must realize that it would be difficult for Afghans to provide them with any form of support when civilians are burying their dead on a daily basis.

The recent attack by the Taliban has also directed a lot of criticism towards President Ghani for his apparent failure in dealing with the security challenges in the country. . Lawmakers on Monday showed deep concerns over “Ghani’s authoritarianism” and said Ghani “himself was a part of the problem” in the country. Some MPs also accused the President of “nepotism” in the appointments of some senior security officials, including the commander of the Shaheen Army Corps, Major General Mohmand Katawazai.

It is yet to be seen whether Mattis’s visit and an apparent shift in Washington’s policy would bring any good for Afghanistan; as time is running out for all the major stakeholders to bring the country out of this quagmire of war, violence and insecurity.

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