Defense Secretary Says U.S. Will Decide 'Shortly' on Increasing Troops in Afghanistan

By Patrick Goodenough | May 9, 2017 | 4:15am EDT
More than 8,000 U.S. troops are deployed in Afghanistan to ‘train, advise and assist’ Afghan forces. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sgt. John Jackson)

( – Defense Secretary James Mattis confirmed Monday that a decision could be expected “very, very shortly” on expanding the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, following reports indicating that between 3,000 and 5,000 additional personnel may be deployed.

“We’ll take that decision forward very, very shortly,” Mattis told reporters accompanying him on a trip to Denmark for a meeting of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Currently more than 8,000 U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan as part of NATO-led Operation Resolute Support – the mission to “train, advise and assist” Afghan forces. Additional Special Forces personnel are deployed for counterterrorism actions against the Taliban and the local ISIS affiliate (known as ISIS Khorasan branch or ISIS-K).

More than 30 other nations have a total of some 5,000 troops participating in the NATO mission, with Italy, Germany and Georgia among the biggest contributors.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last February, Operation Resolute Support commander U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson said the counterterror mission was adequately resourced, but that deploying several thousand more troops for the train, advise and assist mission would help to break the “stalemate” with the Taliban, ISIS-K and other adversaries.

Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster both paid visits to Afghanistan last month, and on Thursday, senior Defense Department official Theresa Whelen told the same Senate committee that proposals for Afghanistan troop “adjustments” could be presented to President Trump “within the next week.”

Whelen, the acting assistant secretary for special operations, also used the term “stalemate,” and said it was the Pentagon’s intention to move beyond it.

The Taliban late last month announced the start of its annual spring offensive, which this year has been dubbed “Operation Mansouri” in honor of its slain leader, Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, killed in a U.S. drone strike on Pakistani territory a year ago.

A week later, it claimed it had already “conquered vast areas” in its battle against “the foreign occupiers and their internal allies.”

Some of the fiercest fighting between Taliban fighters and Afghan forces has been taking place in the Kunduz area in the north, near the border with Tajikistan. Kunduz city has twice before fallen briefly to the insurgents, in 2015 and again last fall.

Just a week before “Operation Mansouri” began, a senior Taliban figure, Quari Tayib, was killed in an airstrike in the Kunduz area.

‘Emir’ slain

The Taliban isn’t the only terrorist group in Afghanistan to be losing senior leaders.

On Sunday, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan confirmed that the “emir” of ISIS-K, Abdul Hasib, had been killed in a combined U.S.-Afghan raid in Nangarhar province in the country’s east on April 27.

The raid involved two platoons of U.S. Army rangers and a similarly sized Afghan special forces contingent, inserted by helicopter near Hasib’s headquarters – not far from where the U.S. earlier targeted an ISIS-K tunnel complex with a Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb.

During a firefight lasting more than three hours, two U.S. Army rangers were killed. The military is investigating the possibility that Sgt. Joshua Rodgers, 22, of Bloomington, Ill., and Sgt. Cameron Thomas, 23, of Kettering, Ohio, were killed accidentally by friendly fire.

The military command said the targeted terrorist leader had “directed” an attack on March 8 against a military hospital in Kabul in which more than 100 Afghans had been killed or wounded.

“Hasib also directed fighters to behead local elders in front of their families and ordered the kidnapping of women and girls to force them to marry ISIS-K fighters,” it said.

Operation Resolute Support commander Nicholson noted that Hasib was the second ISIS-K “emir” to be killed in nine months, along with dozens of the group’s leaders and hundreds of its fighters.

“Any ISIS member that comes to Afghanistan will meet the same fate.”

Hasib’s predecessor, Hafiz Saeed Khan, was killed in a U.S. airstrike, also in Nangarhar province, last July. Khan, a former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander, pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in January 2015, and was later named leader of the new ISIS-K branch.

ISIS-K drew much of its early support from disaffected Taliban fighters and from the ranks of the TTP in neighboring Pakistan.

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