Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he is focused on finding an end to the war in Afghanistan, but that doesn’t involve withdrawing U.S. military forces from the country anytime soon.
“We are going to stand with the 41 nations, largest wartime coalition in history, who are still committed to this effort,” Mattis said at the Reagan National Defense Forum here on Saturday.
“The Taliban have made clear the lives of the Afghan people are of no value to them. They can’t win at the ballot box, so they are trying to terrorize instead.”
Mattis’ comments come just days after President Donald Trump issued similar support for the continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, now into its 18th year. About 16,000 U.S. troops are currently deployed in Afghanistan in training and counterterrorism roles.
Four U.S. service members have been killed in the country in the last week and 13 since the start of the year. More than 2,400 U.S. military personnel have died since the initial invasion of American forces in 2001.
Mattis said he has no doubts of the importance of keeping those troops in the region.
“If we leave, with 20-odd of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world centered in that region, we know what will happen,” he said. “Our intelligence is very specific. We will be under attack.”
He praised Trump’s decision to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan last year, and said that “for the first time in 17 years, the U.N. believes we have hope for peace.”
Mattis said the Defense Department is “going to do our level best to drive to a political resolution” and that finding ways to broker a peace deal presents the most realistic path to ending the conflict there.
But he also criticized the Taliban’s commitment to that reconciliation, and said it can’t be solely a U.S. effort.
“This is going to take regional help. It’s going to take UN help,” he said.
Trump earlier in the week said he is cautiously optimistic about the potential for an end to the conflict, but added that the situation remains “a little bit too early to say what’s going to happen.”
Mattis in his speech also praised young military recruits, noting that “they’ve grown up with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they choose to serve anyway.”