U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said Thursday that President Donald Trump's administration is nearing a decision on a strategy designed to end the war in Afghanistan, the longest conflict in U.S. history.
"We are coming very close to a decision and I anticipate it in the very near future," Mattis told reporters at a Washington news conference.
Trump will meet with Vice President Mike Pence and his national security team Friday to discuss new approaches to the 16-year-old war, according to the White House.
Options include sending thousands of additional troops to the war-torn country or withdrawing them altogether, leaving private military contractors to help manage the country's tenuous security situation.
After years of extensive support from the United States and other NATO member nations, the Afghan military is still struggling to resist the Taliban, which has made recent advances in Afghanistan and the Pakistan border region. U.S. generals have described the conflict as a "stalemate."
Trump authorized Mattis to determine troop numbers in Afghanistan, but several months later allied troop levels remain unchanged. About 8,400 U.S. troops and an estimated 5,000 NATO troops are in the country, serving primarily in advisory and training capacities.
Mattis has said he would commit to troop level adjustments after the administration agrees on a coherent strategy for Afghanistan and the broader region, including Pakistan's dealings with terrorist groups.
Rand Corporation South Asian expert Jonah Blank said intelligence reports he has received suggest an increase in troops is currently the administration's most favored option.
"It sounds like the administration is leaning toward a modest increase in troop levels, perhaps between 3 and 5 thousand troops ... without a termination date for their stay," Blank said.
Blank predicted a modest troop increase would not "change the overall trajectory of the war" given the failure of a collective effort to end the long-running conflict.
Senior White House strategist Steve Bannon is reportedly among a cadre of Trump advisers who favor withdrawing troops or dispatching private military contractors to replace them.
The founder of the Blackwater security firm, Erik Prince, and DynCorp owner Stephen Feinberg last month offered proposals to the White House to use contractors instead of U.S. troops.
But increasing numbers of influential Afghans are concerned private firms would not be accountable. They are concerned that using contractors risks a reoccurrence of the heinous acts Blackwater Security Company guards committed in Afghanistan and Iraq about a decade ago.
The meeting among Trump and his advisers will take place at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the mid-Atlantic state of Maryland.
Source: Voice of America