Mattis Presses Afghan Peace Talks as Casualties Mount

U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis speaks to reporters at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Nov. 21, 2018. (DoD/Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)
U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis speaks to reporters at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Nov. 21, 2018. (DoD/Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

"The thing's gone on long enough," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week of the war in Afghanistan as he pressed for peace talks with the Taliban.

"Right now, it's 40 years next year since the Soviet invasion," which lit the fuse for the bloody ethnic, sectarian and political rivalries that have continued through the Taliban's rise to power, he said. The U.S. military involvement began within weeks of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

It's time for a political settlement, Mattis said last Wednesday in a wide-ranging informal session with Pentagon reporters.

He spoke three days before Army Sgt. Leandro A.S. Jasso, 25, of Leavenworth, Washington, was fatally wounded in a firefight with al-Qaida militants in southwestern Nimruz province.

On Tuesday, NATO's Resolute Support mission said Jasso's death was likely the result of friendly fire from an Afghan security forces unit.

Also on Tuesday, NATO reported that three U.S. troops were killed and three other service members and a contractor were wounded by an improvised explosive device in north central Ghazni province.

The deaths of Jasso and the three service members bring the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this year up to 13.

At the Pentagon, Mattis said he is encouraged by the efforts of veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, in attempting to lay the groundwork for a political settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

"We're doing what we can to support Ambassador Khalilzad. He is firmly in control now and acting very much in an energetic way" to make contacts with Taliban representatives, Mattis said, adding that the ambassador is trying "to engage with Saudi help, United Arab Emirates help and Qatari help, to get the reconciliation talks going."

The three Gulf Arab states "are helping us to try to bring the Taliban together for an Afghan-led, but fully supported by the international community, reconciliation effort," he said.

Mattis declined to characterize the progress made by Khalilzad, but said, "There's an active effort underway, and it includes folks from the Taliban side."

The estimated 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are "doing the advising in the field" for the Afghan forces, Mattis said. "We've lost some troops doing it over the last several months, as you know," but Afghan troops since 2014 have taken the lead in the fighting and have suffered far more casualties.

"You noticed President [Ashraf] Ghani announcing at least a total 29,000 Afghan troops killed since 2015. It gives you an idea just how much of a load of this fight is being carried by the Afghan army," he said.

The U.S. and NATO no longer give estimates on Afghan casualties, but Ghani gave the figures earlier this month in a speech by video to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, where he once taught anthropology.

Ghani said that since the start of 2015, when Afghan police and army units took over primary Afghan security, "28,529 of our security forces have lost their lives and become martyrs for our freedom."

During that same period, 58 U.S. troops were killed, he said.

"I would like to salute the patriotism of the Afghan security forces, every single one of whom is a volunteer," Ghani said. "We have no conscription, nobody is forced, and if there was not a patriotic impulse, I don't think that people would sacrifice their lives for a pay of $200 [per month]."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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