Defense Secretary James Mattis on Tuesday rebuffed a proposal to replace U.S. troops in Afghanistan with private contractors and said the Trump administration is making progress toward bringing the 17-year Afghan war to a close.
“When the Americans put their nation’s credibility on the line, privatizing it is probably not a wise idea,” Mattis told reporters during a rare press briefing at the Pentagon.
Mattis was referring to a plan from Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL and founder of the now-defunct military contractor Blackwater. The controversial billionaire is pushing the government to replace most of American soldiers in Afghanistan with private security forces, who would be overseen by an envoy who reports directly to the president.
There are roughly 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan supporting the U.S.-backed government with counterterrorism operations and a “train, advise, and assist” mission to Afghan security forces. Prince, whose sister is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, says his plan would allow the Pentagon to cut down on manpower and save billions compared to what it currently spends in Afghanistan.
“Right now, there are 15,000 US troops and another 30,000 contractors. All I need is … my plan would say 2,000 special forces remain and about 6,000 contractors,” he told MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell earlier this month. “That is by any stretch a severe reduction in manpower and spending.”
Prince pitched a version of the plan in August 2017, but it was rejected by Mattis and other senior defense officials. In recent weeks, he has revived the idea and promoted it on cable news programs that President Donald Trump is known to watch.
The media blitz comes as questions mount about the effectiveness of the current U.S. strategy for the Afghanistan war. Under Trump, the Pentagon has deployed an additional 3,000 troops and increased airstrikes in Afghanistan, but the Taliban insurgency remains as potent as it has ever been.
The Taliban carried out a wave of assaults across the country earlier in August, inflicting heavy casualties on Afghan security forces and nearly capturing Ghazni, a key provincial capital. In some cases, the insurgents overran entire Afghan army units, calling into question the ability of security forces to fight without direct U.S. support. (RELATED: US Downplays Insurgency After Taliban Assaults Kill Hundreds Of Afghan Soldiers)
Mattis downplayed the significance of the Taliban victories, arguing that the group did not achieve any long-term “military objectives” in its attacks on Ghazni and elsewhere.
“I don’t believe you can use this example as emblematic” of the Afghan army’s capacity to fight, he said.
Despite recent battlefield losses, the administration’s strategy of supporting Afghan forces until they can bring the Taliban to the negotiating table is starting to bear fruit, Mattis said.
He pointed to a recent ceasefire agreement between Kabul and the Taliban — as well as a proposed truce for an upcoming Muslim holiday — as evidence the Taliban is seeking to make a peace deal. (RELATED: Afghan President Proposes Three-Month Conditional Ceasefire With Taliban)
“We are going to drive this to a negotiated settlement,” Mattis said.
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