Former Defense Secretary James Mattis said heby the Trump administration to secure a diplomatic end to the 18-year conflict with Taliban militants in Afghanistan, but cautioned against a peace agreement that doesn't prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups determined to harm the U.S.
"I think you want to verify then trust. We've asked them, demanded that they break with al Qaeda since the Bush administration. They've refused to do so," Mattis said on "Face the Nation" Sunday, referring to the Taliban, which has mounted an insurgency in Afghanistan since it was ousted from power in 2001 by a U.S.-led coalition.
Mattis, who served as President Trump's first defense secretary before resigning over disagreements on foreign policy, said the U.S. needs to remember the Taliban provided safe haven to al Qaeda and refused to extradite its then-leader Osama bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"We should never forget that, that the Taliban hid those people among them, refused to break with them and have refused to this day to break," he added.
Having led various military units during the early campaign in Afghanistan while serving in the Marines, Mattis said the U.S. needs to ensure a peace agreement with the Taliban does not involve a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops. He warned that doing so may have similar repercussions as the drawdown of U.S. forces from Iraq during the Obama administration, a decision many have said allowed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to capture vast swaths of land.
Mattis suggested there should be a substantial American military presence in Afghanistan until the government in Kabul can demonstrate it is willing and capable of denying safe haven to terrorist groups.
"I think the fundamentals of forcing al Qaeda and terrorist groups out of those safe havens, ensuring that the Taliban do not give them safe havens, those goals should be foremost and any other goals we then attach to those should be secondary," he said. "Don't let them distract you from that primary goal."
Mattis' warnings came a day after the president publicly cancelled a previously secret meeting at his Camp David retreat in Maryland with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and representatives of the Taliban, which has so far refused to negotiate directly with Ghani's administration.
Mr. Trump said he, slated to take place Sunday, because the Taliban admitted to plotting a suicide bombing in Kabul on Thursday that killed 12 people, including a U.S. service member and a member of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Despite being canceled, the meeting's revelation elicited some condemnation from several Democrats and Republicans, who said members of the Taliban should not be invited to Camp David, especially just days before the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Mattis said he was surprised by the secret meeting and its cancelation.
"It was a surprise," he said Sunday. "But I would say that all wars eventually come to an end and I salute efforts to try to end that war. No doubt."