Mattis: Afghans boost troop vetting after insider attacks

The Afghan military has increased its vetting of local forces working with American troops as a result of recent insider attacks that killed two U.S. service members, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday.

Mattis was making his first public comments about his meetings in Afghanistan last week when he raised the issue with President Ashraf Ghani amid increased concerns about Afghan forces attacking U.S. troops they work alongside.

Speaking to Pentagon reporters, Mattis said that Afghan leaders increased training for their troops and expanded security checks "to make certain we're catching people who've been radicalized."

Cpl. Joseph Maciel of South Gate, California, was shot and killed and two others were wounded in July at Tarin Kowt in southern Uruzgan province. And Army Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy A. Bolyard, of Thornton, West Virginia, was shot and killed and another service member was wounded by a member of the Afghan national police in eastern Logar province. The troops were all part of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, which is spread out across Afghanistan to train and advise local forces.

Mattis made a brief, unannounced visit to Kabul on Friday to meet with government leaders and the new commander of U.S. and coalition forces, Army Gen. Scott Miller.

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A key subject during his meetings, Mattis said, was the path to reconciliation with the Taliban and how to ensure that the warfighting campaign is sustained even as peace talks are sought with the Taliban.

"We spoke about the need for clarity among everyone so that there is never something going on" regarding reconciliation that all sides don't know about, Mattis said. He added that they also discussed security for the upcoming parliamentary election.

The U.S. has been increasing efforts to support reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan government, naming veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as a special adviser for the matter last week.

Mattis and other military leaders have talked more optimistically about the prospects for reconciliation, saying they are seeing greater support for the peace process around the country, including Taliban participation in a brief ceasefire in June.

Still, Mattis conceded that there has been little quantifiable data showing that the move to peace is advancing. The Taliban, he said, has so far not met three critical conditions: to stop killing people, break away from al-Qaida and abide by the country's constitution.

Indeed, the Taliban have increased high-profile, deadly attacks on provincial centers, including a deadly assault on Ghazni last month that killed dozens of Afghan security forces and civilians.

The Pentagon is a year into a new war strategy outlined by the Trump administration, and military leaders have indicated no significant change in that game plan or the number of troops on the ground. There are roughly 14,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

In addition to the Taliban fight, the U.S. has been supporting Afghan forces in an aggressive campaign against Islamic State group insurgents in eastern Nangarhar province. The IS affiliate, however, has repeatedly been able to carry out horrific and brazen attacks in the heavily fortified capital of Kabul.

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