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‘Work with Pakistan one more time’ – US troop boost to cost $1b

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the “Political and Security Situation in Afghanistan” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2017. REUTERS

WASHINGTON, Oct 4, (Agencies): The US military’s top leaders told lawmakers Tuesday that the thousands of additional US troops President Donald Trump has ordered to Afghanistan will cost just over $1 billion a year, bringing the total bill for fighting America’s longest war to $12.5 billion annually. During wide-ranging hearings on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also said that the United States should remain in the nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama administration that constrains Iran’s ability to build a nuclear arsenal.

Trump has trashed the international accord, a cornerstone of Barack Obama’s presidency, as the worst agreement ever negotiated by the United States and signaled he may abandon the agreement. The release of the Afghan war cost information came as Sen John McCain, RArizona, assailed Mattis and Marine Corps Gen Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for withholding from Congress key details about Trump’s new strategy for winning in Afghanistan that was announced six weeks ago.

McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, declared that it was “bizarre” that Mattis and Dunford did not submit written testimony before the hearing started. That’s customary practice for administration witnesses testifying before congressional committees. “We want to be your partners,” McCain said. “But this committee will not be a rubber stamp for any policy or president. We must be well-informed. We must be convinced of the merits of the administration’s actions. And unfortunately, we still have far more questions than answers about this new strategy.” Mattis and Dunford, who appeared first before the Senate panel and later before the House Armed Services Committee, sought to assure skeptical lawmakers that Trump’s plan for expanding the US presence in Afghanistan would pay off. Several members expressed concern the US was wading more deeply into a confl ict at great expense without prospects for long-term success.

Mattis said that the Afghanistan military and police forces are fully engaged in combat operations for the first time during the 16-year-old war and are suffering fewer casualties as they continue to improve their competence on the battlefield. He added that the Afghan forces are becoming bolder in combat because they know US and NATO forces are using airpower to strike the Taleban and other militants on “the high ground.” That frees up the Afghans to “take the fight to the enemy,” Mattis said. Dunford acknowledged, however, that the war in Afghanistan is currently a stalemate. “We’re not at a point where we can bring a successful political solution to the war,” Dunford said.

Trump unveiled his new strategy for Afghanistan in August and said American troops would “fight to win” by attacking enemies, “crushing” al-Qaeda, and preventing terrorist attacks against Americans. But Trump’s description of a win in Afghanistan notably did not include defeating the Taleban. He indicated that after an effective military effort it eventually may be possible to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan that includes elements of the Taleban. As part of the plan, the Pentagon is boosting troop numbers by about 3,500, augmenting the roughly 11,000 Americans currently stationed there. The increase will expand training of the Afghan military and beef up US counterterrorism operations against al- Qaeda and a growing Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, as well as the Taleban and other extremist groups.

Mattis warned Tuesday that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan would be “to our ultimate peril,” as he briefed Congress on plans to increase US troop levels. “Based on intelligence community analysis and my own evaluation, I am convinced we would absent ourselves from this region at our peril,” he said, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We must always remember we are in Afghanistan to make America safer and to ensure South Asia cannot be used to plot transnational attacks against the US homeland or our partners and allies,” he said. The Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States was set in motion from Taleban-ruled Afghanistan by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Mattis also said the United States would try “one more time” to work with Pakistan in Afghanistan before President Donald Trump would turn to options to address Islamabad’s alleged support for militant groups. Relations between the two countries have been frayed over the past decade. While offi- cials have long questioned the role Pakistan has played in Afghanistan, the comments by Mattis are likely to cause concern in Islamabad and within the Pakistan military.

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