September 28, 2017

TSC IntelBrief: Rockets in Kabul for the Secretary of Defense

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ surprise visit to Afghanistan was supposed to highlight efforts to put into action the latest U.S. plan for success in its longest war.

• On September 27, insurgents fired rockets and rocket-propelled grenades and detonated suicide vests at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

• The attack, claimed by both the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State, targeted U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who had left the airport two hours earlier with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

• Secretary Mattis was on an unannounced visit to work out details of the newest U.S. plan for success in Afghanistan.

• Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to trade accusations that the other is responsible for terrorist attacks that afflict both nations.


U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ surprise visit to Afghanistan was supposed to highlight efforts to put into action the latest U.S. plan for success in its longest war. Two hours after Secretary Mattis left Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport for meetings in Kabul, insurgents inside the airport perimeter attacked using rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests. At least thirteen civilians where reported wounded, while a U.S. airstrike on the insurgents saw a missile malfunction, causing additional casualties. There were also reports of three assailants killed in a firefight with Afghan Special Forces at the same time. Both the Taliban and the Islamic State’s Khorosan wiliyat (state) claimed responsibility. The fact that both claims could be plausible highlights the deteriorating security situation in much of the country and how fragile security is, even in the heart of Kabul.

While the new U.S. plan deliberately keeps troop levels and time tables unclear, it also appears the U.S. and its partners (NATO and others) have yet to set the metrics they’ll use to measure the plan’s impact. Secretary Mattis has said another reason for the trip was to hammer out those metrics with the partners. New metrics or not, additional troops have already begun the process of deploying to Afghanistan to increase the coalition’s ‘advise, train, and assist’ efforts. 

Meanwhile, the military situation has devolved into a stalemate, one that is unsustainable for both the Afghan government and coalition forces. U.S. officials have stressed there is no military ‘victory’ in Afghanistan and are working to build momentum for a regional solution, since the war is complicated by regional tensions and maneuvering. The U.S. has put additional public pressure on Pakistan in recent months, with President Trump telling Islamabad it needs to do more to combat terrorist groups targeting coalition and Afghan forces. While Pakistani support (tacit and explicit) for terrorist groups has been an issue since before the war started in 2001, there is some sense the Trump administration might keep pressing the issue, since there is no hope of a resolution to the war without Pakistan’s cooperation. 

For its part, Pakistan has frequently denied it tolerates terrorist groups on its soil, saying again at the United Nations last week that its people and security forces had suffered greatly in the fight against terrorism and that the true terror sanctuaries are in the large swaths of Afghan territory outside Kabul’s control. Both countries are correct in saying the other bears a great deal of responsibility for the threats they face and it will take serious changes and reforms in both capitals to change the long-running trend lines of increased instability and decreased good governance. 

Prior to his visit to Kabul, Secretary Mattis visited India, which also plays a major role in both the region in general and in the tensions and conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular. It is a positive sign that the U.S. is increasing its diplomatic efforts, though these efforts remain somewhat hobbled by a marginalized and demoralized State Department that is understaffed and under-resourced. While U.S. troop levels—now estimated at over 12,000—are an important part of any long-term strategy, to succeed that strategy must include a comprehensive framework that better enables both Afghanistan and its neighbors to resolve the crisis, and therefore holds them more accountable as well. The war in Afghanistan remains one of the world’s greatest humanitarian crises, with enormous numbers of refugees internally and externally and no clear path to success. 




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