Secretary of Defense James Mattis made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday. A surprise in the sense that it was unannounced, but certainly not a shock considering the recent US troop surge to the country ordered by President Trump in August. As the boss of the entire US military Mattis wants to check up on is employees, see how they are faring, and get an on-the-ground perspective of what the area looks like.
In an opening press conference, Mattis refused to go into details regarding the coalition forces that would be deployed in the current surge, saying only that “we have a compelling battlefield advantage over anything the Taliban tries to mass.”
The trip was not only marked by the Secretary’s cool show of confidence. Breaking the mood was a large and coordinated bombardment of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.
According to reports, Afghan officials stated that hangars and several helicopters at the airport were damaged in the attack. Some 40 rocket-propelled grenades and other explosive munitions were fired at the airport in total. The Afghan Interior Ministry reported that one Afghan civilian was killed and at least 11 others were injured after an insurgent rocket hit a house nearby the airport. An unspecified number of civilians were also inadvertently killed when US airpower responded to the attack.
Both the Taliban and the Afghan offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria claimed responsibility for the attack.
What is the significance of the latest show of militant force?
First off, it serves as a potent reminder that the security situation in Afghanistan is far from perfect. This holds true not just for the capital but for other regions as well. Another car bomb attack in Kandahar on Wednesday killed at least a dozen Afghan security personnel.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the attack is sending an important message to the US and other coalition members that militants are not deterred by the surge and are ready for a fight, “compelling battlefield advantage” notwithstanding.
You see Hamid Karzai Airport has a symbolic significance in addition to a strategic one. Located on the outskirts of a major diplomatic zone of the Wazir Akbar Khan section of the city, the airport has been a prime target for the Taliban since the country’s invasion by the US-led coalition sixteen years ago. Quite a few high-profile attacks have occurred there over the past decade, some with the added sensational aspect of targeting high-ranking officials.
The attack on the airport sends a special signal to spite American power. Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, even went so far as to claim in a tweet that Mattis' plane had been the target of the attack.
What can for sure be taken from the latest clash in Kabul is that the Taliban is not going to run and hide as the American’s role in. Mattis’s calls upon arriving in the country for a peaceful resolution with the militant group, is probably not on the Taliban’s agenda.