ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was in Afghanistan today. He commanded soldiers there 16 years ago. Now, as part of the Trump administration, he is sending in more troops, hoping to end America's longest war. NPR's David Welna is traveling with Secretary Mattis and joins us now from Bahrain, Mattis' last stop on a three-nation swing. Hi, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: We heard from American officials just a few months ago that things were at a stalemate in Afghanistan. Was that what Mattis found during his two days there?
WELNA: Yeah, I don't think things have changed a lot on the ground in Afghanistan. We did hear from a couple of American generals that the U.S. and Afghan forces have been killing what they call a high number of Taliban fighters, though we weren't given the actual numbers.
Last time that Mattis was in Afghanistan in September, enemy rockets hit Kabul while he was there. And last night, he and those of us traveling with him stayed at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, and sure enough, another rocket was fired there. And, you know, even though it didn't hit its mark, it did send a message that this is a very long war that by no means is winding down.
SHAPIRO: And in fact the U.S. is expanding its presence there. How many troops are in Afghanistan now?
WELNA: We heard numbers ranging between 14,000 and 15,000 U.S. troops. That's about 50 percent more than when President Trump took office. The latest to arrive are about a thousand officers who volunteered to form what are being called Security Force Assistance Brigades.
The idea is to train and - not just elite Afghan commandos as the U.S. has been doing but all the way down to regular Afghan troops fighting in outlying areas. The thinking is that with the help of these additional Americans, an Afghan fighting force can be brought up to speed enough to finish this war. And yet on the flight to Afghanistan, Mattis insisted that the aim is not to have a military victory.
JIM MATTIS: It's all working to achieve a reconciliation - a political reconciliation, not a military victory. The victory will be a political reconciliation.
SHAPIRO: David, explain what that looks like. What does he mean by political reconciliation?
WELNA: Well, Mattis thinks peace will only come when the Afghan government and the Taliban sit down and work out a political settlement. And he's quite enthusiastic about a proposal that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made last week to hold talks with the Taliban with no preconditions. This follows an open letter the Taliban wrote last month to the American people urging the U.S. to hold talks with them on ending the war.
Mattis says it's the Afghans who have to own this process. And so he says they have to meet with the Taliban, not the U.S. The Taliban hasn't responded to the Afghan president's invitation to talk yet.
SHAPIRO: But what incentive would the Taliban have to hold peace talks when they control parts of the country and they've actually increased their attacks on Kabul, the capital?
WELNA: Yeah. American officers I spoke with see these attacks as a shift from trying to take territory to resorting to terrorism, which they consider a sign of weakness. I spoke this morning with the American who commands all U.S. forces there, General John Nicholson. He points to the arrival of the new American training brigade as well as stepped-up air attacks by both American and Afghan forces as evidence things are getting a lot harder for the Taliban as Afghan forces keep getting better.
GENERAL JOHN NICHOLSON: You're seeing a real growing capability. So in the Taliban's mind, they see what's coming. And these capabilities are only going to get greater. There's going to be double the number of Commandos. There's going to be more and more Air Force year on year. And so this really is probably their best time to attempt a negotiation because it's only going to get worse for them.
WELNA: And yet when I asked Nicholson if Afghanistan is still the stalemate that he called it in November, he just smiled and ended the discussion with a, thank you.
SHAPIRO: NPR's David Welna traveling with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Thanks, David.
WELNA: You're welcome, Ari.
(SOUNDBITE OF NASSAU SONG, "RISIN' SUN")