US Defense Secretary Holds Talks with Qatari Leaders

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U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has made an unannounced visit to Qatar, holding talks with the country’s emir and defense minister at the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East.

Mattis arrived at Al Udeid Air Base 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.

Largest US base in Middle East

Qatar’s Al-Udeid Air Base is the largest American air base in the Middle East, serving as the forward operational headquarters of U.S. Central Command and the host to about 10,000 American troops.

Defense Secretary Mattis arrived in Qatar after wrapping a trip to Afghanistan, where he met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.

Earlier on 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.

Next week, the first group of Afghan pilots at the base will begin training to fly Blackhawk helicopters.

The United States is donating about 160 refurbished Blackhawks 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.

New Taliban strategy

On Wednesday, Mattis said the United States, with its new strategy for breaking the deadlock with Taliban insurgents, is not going to give up the fight in Afghanistan.

“With our new conditions-based south Asia strategy we will be better postured to support [Afghanistan] as your forces turn the tide against the terrorists,” Mattis said during a visit to Kabul Wednesday “We will not abandon Afghanistan to a merciless enemy trying to kill its way to power.”

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