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Trump adviser's Afghanistan visit catches many by surprise

April 16, 2017 (Photo Credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — President Trump's national security adviser arrived in Kabul on Sunday for talks meant to help shape the administration's strategy toward Afghanistan, but the high-level visit, announced last week, appears to have caught several Afghan and American officials by surprise.

Trump's envoy, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, met on Sunday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, according a statement from the U.S. embassy in Kabul. They discussed a host of security matters, including how Afghanistan's government intends to confront widespread internal corruption that continues to undermine NATO's broader objectives. McMaster also met with U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens and the top American war commander, Army Gen. John Nicholson.

The visit comes as Trump's administration evaluates how its approach to the 15-year campaign, a frustrating and seemingly endless conflict that Nicholson recently declared a stalemate, will differ from his predecessor's. Nicholson wants an unspecified number of additional troops — believed to number in the thousands — who can accelerate military training for the Afghans and, it is hoped, reverse the Taliban's surging momentum in several vulnerable parts of the country. That could prove a tough sell in Congress, where the war's critics have grown weary of its toll, both in taxpayer expense and lives lost.

The decision to dispatch McMaster appears to have been hastily coordinated, possibly in response to news that Russia on Friday would convene  a summit to contemplate Afghanistan's future, meetings that included delegates from Iran, China and Pakistan. No U.S. representatives attended those talks.

Afghan and U.S. officials say they were caught off guard by Trump's announcement, which he made during a media engagement on Wednesday alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. At the Afghan embassy in Washington, word of McMaster's visit "came out of the blue," an official there told Military Times on the condition of anonymity. "We only learned about it from the Trump press conference," the Afghan official said.

Multiple Pentagon officials echoed those sentiments, saying they first heard about McMaster's trip via media reports.

In Kabul, a spokesman for Nicholson did not respond to questions seeking clarity on the nature of McMaster's plans, to what degree Nicholson will facilitate the national security adviser's assessment and what objectives the war commander deems most pressing.

The White House is focused on diversifying the approach to Afghanistan, an administration official told Military Times. Trump has said only that McMaster's mission is to evaluate how the U.S.-led coalition can begin to "make progress" there, a statement that seemed to call into question whether his national security adviser had been tasked with pursuing a strategy review that's separate from Nicholson's appraisal, which according to his most recent congressional testimony envisions the possibility of "success" within another four years.

The White House disputed the notion that McMaster is operating independent of the Defense Department.

"He will be taking an interagency team and the DOD is fully aware," the administration official said ahead of McMaster's trip. "DOD has been involved since the beginning."

Still, no one has articulated why the president tapped his national security adviser for this assignment, a decision that's sure to be discussed throughout the Pentagon and in Kabul given the four-star Nicholson's  vast background in Afghanistan.

It's the first official visit to Afghanistan by a senior Trump administration official. Not even Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has made an appearance in Kabul since assuming his post in January. The Pentagon announced on Friday that Mattis is traveling throughout the region this week with scheduled stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Qatar and Djibouti.

McMaster is a three-star general, and a deeply respected military strategist with experience in Afghanistan and in Iraq. In the Pentagon, some have speculated the president desires feedback from a variety of sources before defining policies. In early April, for instance, Trump dispatched another senior adviser to Iraq. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, traveled there with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford to assess operations against the Islamic State. 

On Sunday, Afghan news agencies shared photos on social media showing McMaster — dressed not in his military uniform but a business suit — meeting with various officials. At the same time, a bogus Twitter account purporting to be run by McMaster was exposed as a hoax, though not before duping journalists and officials at the American embassy in Kabul, who tagged the fake account — @SecAdviserUSA — in a tweet about the visit. The embassy subsequently removed that post.

Approximately 13,000 NATO troops remain in Afghanistan. About 8,400 are Americans. Their mission is twofold: to train and advise Afghan forces battling the Taliban, and hunt down terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State. 

McMaster's visit follows a massive airstrike, ordered by Nicholson on Thursday, that reportedly killed dozens of Islamic State loyalists in eastern Afghanistan. The group's stronghold along the Pakistan border has become a source of heightened concern despite suffering heavy losses over much of the last year.

An American soldier, 37-year-old Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar, was killed while battling ISIS fighters there one week ago. The Green Beret is the lone American to die as a result of hostile action in Afghanistan so far this year.

Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times’ senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter:  @adegrandpreShawn Snow is a staff writer and Military Times' Early Bird editor. On Twitter:  @SnowSox184
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