WASHINGTON — All options — from withdrawal, to using private contractors, to adding thousands of U.S. forces to the fight — remain on the table for Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday.
Mattis, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster have worked for months to craft strategy options for President Donald Trump.
While Mattis repeated that the White House and Pentagon are very close to finalizing a new strategy to present to Trump, the possibilities of what that future role in Afghanistan would be remains wide open, Mattis said Monday.
Mattis was asked both about the option that U.S. forces could withdraw, and whether a private contracted force was possible for Afghanistan. He said they are both still under consideration.
“The strategic decisions have not been made,” Mattis said. “It’s part of the options being considered.”
Military Times previously reported on Trump supporter and former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince’s efforts to outsource the now 16-year Afghan war to private contractors, including offering a privatized air force for Afghanistan.
Military Times also reported that Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, has refused to meet with Prince.
It is not clear whether that refusal has frustrated Trump.
According to NBC News, Trump has asked both Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford to replace Nicholson as the top U.S. general in Afghanistan. due to the president’s frustration with how that campaign is going.
On Monday, Mattis defended Nicholson, saying he “of course” supports him. But Mattis could not say whether the White House similarly supported him.
“Ask the president,” Mattis said. “[Nicholson] has the confidence of NATO. He has the confidence of the United States.”
The new strategy for Afghanistan was expected about a month ago. Mattis said he was still confident a decision was close.
“We are sharpening each of the options so you can see the pluses and minuses of each one so that there’s no longer any new data you are going to get, now just make the decision.”
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."