Defense Secretary James Mattis on Tuesday sought to temper media reports that the Pentagon has taken a more optimistic outlook on Afghanistan, a day after a pair of suicide bombings in Kabul killed at least 35 people, including 10 journalists.
Mattis, when asked how to reconcile the bombings with recent Pentagon statements suggesting an improving outlook, said he would "not subscribe to that" line of thinking.
“I don't know that that's been the message from this building. ... We said last August NATO is going to hold the line, we knew there would be tough fighting going forward,” Mattis told reporters before meeting with Macedonian Defense Minister Radmila Šekerinska.
An affiliate group of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has claimed credit for the recent attack, the deadliest single incident against journalists in Afghanistan since 2002. After the first suicide bombing, another militant detonated his explosives after journalists convened to cover the first blast.
“The murder of journalists and other innocent people is a great testimony to what it is we stand for and more importantly what we stand against,” Mattis said. “We anticipated and are doing our best and have been successful at blocking many of these attacks on innocent people but unfortunately once in a while they get through.”
The White House on Tuesday also strongly condemned the attack. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there was “absolutely no justification for such a senseless and heinous act."
President Trump in August announced a new strategy for the ongoing 16-year war in Afghanistan that included the United States sending thousands more troops there as well as strengthening its airpower.
By March, Mattis said that he had seen signs that some elements of the Taliban are interested in talking about ending the war.
“We’ve had some groups of Taliban, small groups, who have either started to come over or expressed an interest in talking,” he said.
While meeting with Mattis in Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called Trump’s strategy a “game-changer.”
The head U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, later said that he agreed with Ghani’s assessment.
But following the recent bombings — as well as a new audit showing that Afghan security forces have shrunk by 10 percent — Mattis stressed that work is still ongoing to improve the situation within the country. He also indicated the actual numbers of Afghan troops doesn’t matter, rather, it’s how capable they are in deterring the enemy.
“The Afghan military is being made more capable, you'll notice that more of the forces are special forces, advised and assisted, accompanied by NATO mentors and these are the most effective forces,” Mattis said.
“So the expansion there is why the enemy has been unable to take any district centers provincial centers or make any advances there.”
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) this week released a new report that found that Afghan army and police forces have shrunk by about 36,000 personnel in a year.
The report also found that, since August 2016, insurgents have expanded control over parts of the country by 4 percent.
About 14.5 percent of the country’s total districts “were under insurgent control or influence - the highest level recorded since SIGAR began receiving district control data,” according to the report.
The United States currently has about 15,500 troops in Afghanistan with 7,800, assigned to the NATO-led Operation Resolute Support.