U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis returned to the U.S. Thursday, after stops in India, Afghanistan and Qatar intended to solidify relations with U.S. partners in the region.
Mattis said in a statement about his stop in Qatar: “In the midst of its own challenges, Qatar and the U.S. maintain excellent military to military relations.”
Mattis arrived at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, Thursday, days after Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani renewed a call for “unconditional dialogue” to end a crisis involving his country and four Arab states, during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates cut ties with Qatar in June over its close ties to Iran and its alleged support for extremists. Qatar has denied supporting extremism, saying the crisis is politically motivated.
U.S. President Donald Trump met with Qatar’s emir on the sidelines of the General Assembly last week, telling reporters he had a “very strong feeling” the dispute would be solved “pretty quickly.” Trump has offered to mediate the crisis.
Earlier Thursday, Mattis and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, where they held a town hall with 250 U.S. and NATO military personnel on the Kandahar air base.
“In Afghanistan,” the secretary said in a statement, “Stoltenberg and I reaffirmed the alliance’s commitment to support the Afghan government to end the conflict and force the Taliban to negotiate a political solution.”
Next week, the first group of Afghan pilots at the base will begin training to fly Black Hawk helicopters.
The United States is donating about 160 refurbished Black Hawks to the Afghan military over the next seven years as part of a new Afghan air force modernization program. In seven years, U.S. officials hope to expand the Afghan air force to twice its current size and increase its personnel by 50 percent.
Mattis took steps to reinforce a quickly growing defense partnership with India on Tuesday, declaring the relationship has “never been stronger.”
During meetings with senior Indian officials, including Prime Minster Narendra Modi and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Mattis stressed that the U.S. and India are “natural strategic partners who share common values and interests.”