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Mattis on new Afghanistan strategy: 'We are pretty close'

President Donald Trump and his national security team are scheduled to meet next week to discuss US strategy for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, according to two administration officials familiar with the latest thinking.

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Barbara Starr (CNN Pentagon Correspondent)

President Donald Trump and his national security team are scheduled to meet next week to discuss US strategy for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, according to two administration officials familiar with the latest thinking.

While the meetings could be delayed or rescheduled, the officials told CNN that the ongoing review appears to be drawing to a close.

On Friday the Pentagon announced that the US killed Abu Sayed, the leader of ISIS-Khorasan, the terror group's Afghanistan affiliate in a drone strike on Tuesday.

But there are major challenges ahead, and Defense Secretary James Mattis has been framing the internal discussions inside the administration as a "South Asia strategy." It encompasses a way ahead in Afghanistan, including the possibility of sending more troops, but also a look at new ideas for dealing with Pakistan, which the US believes is supporting or turning a blind eye to a number of terror groups operating inside the country.

One idea being discussed is what one senior administration official directly familiar with the ongoing discussions official called a "stick" approach to Pakistan rather than a "carrot." It could include cutting US assistance to Pakistan and a bolstering of security relationships with India, Pakistan's longtime adversary.

Officials also say a discussion has opened up about whether there are new military as well as non-military options for defeating ISIS globally, including in enclaves in Afghanistan.

It is not clear if the Trump Administration still plans to unveil an entirely new ISIS strategy as promised during the campaign or if it will continue to address individual ISIS issues as they arise in military, diplomatic, law enforcement and financial sectors.

But if decisions are finalized at the series of meetings next week, officials say it is expected that the White House will take the lead making any announcements.

A key element of the discussions is how to proceed in Afghanistan and whether to add additional US troops to the more than 8,000 already there.

Discussion has circulated inside the Pentagon for months about the need to add more trainers and advisers. But two officials says it's possible that the US might decide not to add more troops at this time because there are voices within the administration that feel extra troops won't improve the ability of Afghan forces to challenge the Taliban and fight ISIS.

Afghan forces still have to demonstrate they are powerful enough to make the Taliban feel they are at risk and have no choice but to engage in negotiations with the Afghan government.

Mattis has essentially been given authority to determine the number of troops needed. But he would need the President's signoff if the strategy were to radically change and a large number of troops were added, or if he decided not to add any, officials say.

Mattis is under time pressure to deliver an Afghan strategy to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. At a hearing last month, Mattis told McCain "We are not winning in Afghanistan right now. And we will correct this as soon as possible."

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, Mattis said a decision on the new strategy would come around "mid-July" or "somewhere around there. We are driven by the maturity of the discussion and where we're at, we are not going to meet some time-line if we are not ready but we are pretty close."

While most administration officials have refused to publicly confirm details, Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the President, in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper discussed the idea of using Erik Prince, the controversial former head of the now disbanded Blackwater company to supply contractors for a variety of unspecified missions in Afghanistan.

"If you look at Eric Prince's track record, it's not about billing the government, it's about the opposite, it's about saving the US taxpayer money," Gorka said. While the US and Afghanistan agree there is a need for additional trainers and advisers to improve the capability of Afghan security forces, it's not clear Mattis supports the idea of using contractors. When asked about the idea this week the secretary replied: "I'm still putting together my ideas on that."

Gorka strongly defended Prince, whose former company Blackwater was criticized for how it dealt with civilians in Iraq. Several former employees were convicted in a 2007 incident in Baghdad in which civilians were shot and killed.

"This is a former operator, this is a man who hires former operators," Gorka said of Prince. "This is a cost-cutting venture, we open the door here at the White House to outside ideas."

But defense officials have long noted that in some operations contractors are not less expensive than active duty military members, who are paid considerably less.

Gorka also called US Afghanistan policy over the last 16 years "disastrous," saying the policies were made by people "who've never worn a uniform."

While Afghan policy in the Bush and Trump administration did include involvement from civilian officials, both presidents also strongly relied on the advice of senior military officers including Afghanistan commanders Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as well as chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff including Adm. Michael Mullen and Gen. Martin Dempsey.

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