Defense Secretary Jim Mattis makes unannounced trip to Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan to meet with Afghan leaders and U.S. military officials Monday, taking a fresh look at a 15-year war where he served during its first optimistic months.

Mattis' visit capped a six-country tour through the Middle East, his first as secretary of defense, and comes as the Trump administration considers additional troops to fight the Taliban and defeat ISIS across the region.

His top commander in the country, Gen. John Nicholson, has told Congress he believes the war is at a "stalemate" and has suggested that the NATO coalition needs several thousand more troops to turn the tide. There are approximately 8,400 U.S. personnel serving in Afghanistan.

RELATED: Photos of Mattis traveling to Afghanistan

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James Mattis travels to Afghanistan
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis looks out over Kabul as he arrives via helicopter at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis is saluted by a member of his U.S. Army helicopter crew as he arrives at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis checks his watch as he arrives via helicopter at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A U.S. soldier mans a gun at the back gate aboard the helicopter carrying U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis as he arrives via helicopter at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) and senior advisor Sally Donnelly (L) arrive via helicopter at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) gives senior advisor Sally Donnelly (L) a thumbs-up as they discuss their schedule upon arriving via helicopter at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (C) boards a helicopter to fly from Hamid Karzai International Airport to Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (3rd R) is greeted by U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major David Clark (L) and General Christopher Haas (2nd R) as he arrives at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (in black dress shoes) walks with U.S. Army leaders across a NATO logo as he arrives at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis arrives via helicopter at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (R) meets with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (L) and his delegation at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (C) is greeted by Presidential Palace staff as he arrives to meet with Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) is greeted by Presidential Palace staff as he arrives to meet with Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (center right) is greeted by Presidential Palace staff as he arrives to meet with Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) and U.S. Army General John Nicholson (L), commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, arrive to meet with an Afghan defense delegation at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (2nd R) meets with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (2nd L) and his delegation at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (C) and U.S. Army General John Nicholson (2nd L), commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, meet with Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security Director Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai (R) and other members of the Afghan delegation at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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Neither Mattis nor President Donald Trump has given a public indication if they support Nicholson's request for additional troops.

Highlighting the immense challenges facing the country's government as well as its foreign backers, a massive Taliban attack on an Afghan military compound killed at least 100 soldiers and other personnel on Friday. The attack, in which gunmen and suicide bombers stormed the compound wearing army uniforms, was so significant that it triggered the resignations of Afghanistan's Defense Minister and its Chief of Army Staff.

Earlier this month, Nicholson ordered the use of the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in America's arsenal, the so-called "Mother of All Bombs" on an ISIS complex. The damage it did is still not known.

"Digging into tunnels to count dead bodies is probably not a good use of our troops' time when they are chasing down the enemy that's still capable," Mattis said in Tel Aviv earlier on the trip.

Nicholson, a four-star general, did not request permission from Mattis before dropping the 21,000-pound bomb, according to Defense Department officials, sending a perhaps unintended message about the Trump administration's willingness to use a massive ordinance at a moment when tensions are running high in North Korea and Syria.

Both Trump and Mattis have signaled that they want to empower their commanders on the ground and have not publicly rebuked Nicholson.

The dropping of the MOAB has also sent political shockwaves across Afghanistan's fragile political system, with former President Hamid Karzai calling the incident an "atrocity" and labeling current President Ashraf Ghani a "traitor" for allowing its use.

Mattis' visit follows a trip by Trump's national security adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster eight days ago. He rebuked the Karzai government and attempted to bolster Ghani's rule, while signaling that a more robust U.S. fighting posture could come.

"We didn't have as a reliable partner in the Afghan government as we would have liked," he said. "Our enemy sensed that and they have redoubled their efforts and it's time for us, alongside our Afghan partners, to respond."

While the U.S. was instrumental in helping Karzai become Afghanistan's leader after America helped topple the Taliban in 2001, the relationship between Kabul and Washing became fractious. Ties between the two countries grew warmer again after Ghani was elected in 2014.

RELATED: 19 memorable quotes from James 'Mad Dog' Mattis

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19 memorable quotes from James 'Mad Dog' Mattis
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19 memorable quotes from James 'Mad Dog' Mattis

"You cannot allow any of your people to avoid the brutal facts. If they start living in a dream world, it's going to be bad."

Mattis has often talked to Marine leaders about staying sharp.

The "dream world" he mentioned is a reference to a complacent attitude, and it's one that can cost lives if troops aren't vigilant.

(Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

"If in order to kill the enemy you have to kill an innocent, don't take the shot. Don't create more enemies than you take out by some immoral act."

As a coauthor of the military's counterinsurgency manual (with retired Army Gen. David Petraeus), Mattis has often spoken about following the rules of engagement and being disciplined against a ruthless enemy.

REUTERS/Mike Blake 

"I come in peace. I didn't bring artillery. But I'm pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f*** with me, I'll kill you all."

After the initial Iraq invasion, "Chaos" (his radio call sign) sent home his tanks and artillery and used the "carrot and the stick" with Iraqi tribal leaders.

 (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

"The first time you blow someone away is not an insignificant event. That said, there are some a--holes in the world that just need to be shot. There are hunters and there are victims. By your discipline, you will decide if you are a hunter or a victim."

Addressing his Marines at an air base in Iraq, he tried to motivate them to stay sharp and continue the mission.

He ended the speech, telling them in Patton-esque fashion, "I feel sorry for every son of a b**** that doesn't get to serve with you."

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

"Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet."

One of his "words to live by" for his Marines in Iraq, which was a call for his troops to remain vigilant and never let their guard down even in the company of those who seem friendly.

In a country where insurgents would blend into the local populace with ease, it was good advice.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

"We've backed off in good faith to try and give you a chance to straighten this problem out. But I am going to beg with you for a minute. I'm going to plead with you, do not cross us. Because if you do, the survivors will write about what we do here for 10,000 years."

Mattis demonstrates that he is willing to extend an olive branch to those on the fence — while carrying the weight of Marine firepower if that doesn't work out.

This quote is often shared among Mattis fans for its almost Spartan-like delivery.

 ( CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images)

"I don't lose any sleep at night over the potential for failure. I cannot even spell the word."

The general has always been confident in his abilities and that of his Marines.

He led the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade into Afghanistan in 2001 and the 1st Marine Division into Iraq in 2003, and he led an operation into Fallujah in 2004 dubbed "Operation Vigilant Resolve." He also helped to plan the later "Operation Phantom Fury."

His success in battle and strategic genius has earned him an almost godlike status among Marines.

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

 "A country that armed Stalin to defeat Hitler can certainly work alongside enemies of Al Qaeda to defeat Al Qaeda."

The general is a student of history and an avid reader.

He often stresses the importance of education and training on building effective future leaders.

 (Photo by Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for DIRECTV)

"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually it's quite fun to fight them, you know. It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up there with you. I like brawling."

Some Mattis quotes don't come without a degree of controversy, including this one.

Mattis said this while speaking about his time on the ground in Afghanistan, but he was later counseled by his boss, Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee, who said "he should have chosen his words more carefully."

REUTERS/Gary Cameron 

 "In this age, I don't care how tactically or operationally brilliant you are, if you cannot create harmony — even vicious harmony — on the battlefield based on trust across service lines, across coalition and national lines, and across civilian/military lines, you need to go home, because your leadership is obsolete. We have got to have officers who can create harmony across all those lines."

Mattis wants educated leaders who can both be book smart and be able to get the job done.

REUTERS/Jim Hollander CLH/

"Find the enemy that wants to end this experiment (in American democracy) and kill every one of them until they're so sick of the killing that they leave us and our freedoms intact."

Mattis believes the battlefield is better off being far from American shores.

(Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

 

"Treachery has existed as long as there's been warfare, and there's always been a few people that you couldn't trust."

In places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, alliances can often shift quickly.

Mattis spoke with Congress on this point after a series of so-called green-on-blue attacks that left military leaders struggling to find a solution.

 (Photo credit should read ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images)

 "Fight with a happy heart."

Before heading into Iraq in 2003, all Marines of the 1st Marine Division received a letter from General Mattis.

In the letter, he spoke candidly to his troops, telling them "we will move swiftly and aggressively against those who resist, we will treat others with decency, demonstrating chivalry and soldierly compassion for people who have endured a lifetime under Saddam's oppression."

AFP PHOTO/ Chris KLEPONIS (Photo credit should read CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images)

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