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RAW: US will not abandon Afghans, Mattis says

Posted at 6:44 PM, Sep 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-27 18:44:15-04

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (CNN) - The Taliban has claimed responsibility for a failed rocket attack on Wednesday targeting U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis. It happened near Hamid Karzai International Airport.

Mattis, who landed hours earlier, had already left the airport by the time the attack occurred. An Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman said the rockets landed in an open area. No one was injured in the attack.

According to the spokesman, Afghan special forces were searching homes in the area following the attack.

The unannounced visit to Afghanistan is Mattis' first since President Donald Trump unveiled his new Afghan strategy in August. Mattis met on Wednesday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and also plans to meet with U.S. troops during his visit.

NATO chief joins Mattis 

Mattis and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with Ghani at the Presidential Palace, alongside Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Saying it was "refreshing" to be in the country alongside NATO's leader, Mattis said a "lot was riding" on Trump's new strategy.  "A lot is riding on this of course as we look toward how do we put an end to this fighting and the threat of terrorism to the Afghan people, to the international community and how do we put this into a path of political reconciliation," Mattis said.

At the time, Trump said he was shifting the policy to take the emphasis off troop numbers, and would rely on greater regional cooperation to stabilize the security situation in Afghanistan. 

Earlier Mattis met with key Afghan government officials, including Defense Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami and Interior Minister Wais Barmak, as well as Stoltenberg and Nicholson, at Resolute Support Headquarters.

Nicholson gave an assessment of the fighting season so far, saying it had gone as well as can be expected. Stoltenberg also spoke at the meeting, reiterating NATO support for Afghan forces. "We are ready to train, assist and advise. We would like to help you break the stalemate that we have seen," Stoltenberg said.

Last week, Ghani used a substantial part of his speech at the United Nations General Assembly to praise Trump's recently announced strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia. "With President Trump's recent announcement of his strategy to counter terror and stabilize South Asia, Afghanistan's enduring partnership with the United States and the international community has been renewed and redirected," Ghani told the audience at the UN headquarters in New York.

Afghan strategy

In his August prime-time address, Trump outlined his plan for the war in Afghanistan, vowing that the U.S. would "fight to win" while no longer "nation-building."

The president declared he would no longer announce troop levels but would focus on allowing U.S. forces to target the Taliban and other terrorist groups wherever they were in Afghanistan. "America's enemies must never know our plans, or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will," said Trump, before a crowd of U.S. troops.

There are about 11,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, according to revised figures given by the Pentagon in late August. The number given was around 2,600 more than had been officially disclosed due to a change in its accounting procedures.

Before entering office, Trump had campaigned for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. The 16-year war has claimed the lives of more than 2,200 U.S. troops, as well as thousands of allied forces. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and military have also died in the conflict.

Trump indicated in August that he'd changed his mind and said withdrawing from Afghanistan would dishonor those killed.

Crackdown on Pakistan's 'harboring of terrorists'

Trump's new Afghanistan plan also emphasized that it was a part of a broader South Asia strategy that relied on greater cooperation from neighboring India and Pakistan. 

He had particularly harsh words for Pakistan, saying Washington could "no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organizations."

"The Pakistani people have suffered greatly from terrorism and extremism," Trump said. "Pakistan has also sheltered those same organizations that try every single day to kill our people."

Afghan and U.S. officials have long accused Pakistan of taking insufficient military action against Taliban leadership internally.

Speaking at the UNGA last week, Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi rejected accusations the country hadn't done enough to combat terrorism.  "Having suffered and sacrificed so much due to our role in the global counter terrorism campaign it is especially galling for Pakistan to be blamed for the military or political stalemate in Afghanistan. We are not prepared to be anyone's scapegoat," he said. 

Abbasi added that Taliban "safe havens" were located not in Pakistan but in "large tracts of territory controlled by the Taliban in Afghanistan." As of August of last year, the Afghan government controlled  64.4 of the country.

Seeking help from India

Trump's Afghan strategy also calls for more help from India, which has long maintained strained relations with Pakistan. "India makes billions of dollars in trade from the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan," Trump said.

Mattis' visit to Kabul comes straight off the back of a visit to India. After meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the two released a statement saying, "both sides had reaffirmed their resolve to further develop their strong strategic partnership."

The statement said they'd discussed greater cooperation on a regional and global scale in pursuing their shared goals of "peace, stability and combating terrorism."

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