WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday he can now set U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan after receiving the authority from President Donald Trump. It’s a break from past practice that Mattis said will enable him to more effectively manage the war effort.
In testimony before a Senate panel, Mattis said the decision does not mean U.S. troop levels will change immediately. While he is expected to add at least a few thousand troops soon, Mattis said he will act after further consultation with other government agencies and in line with Trump’s “strategic direction and his foreign policy.”
The U.S. now has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan performing two main missions: hunting and attacking violent extremists, including an Islamic State-affiliated group in eastern Afghanistan; and supporting Afghan combat forces against the Taliban.
Trump has said very little about his intentions in Afghanistan. The administration has been reviewing its options, and Mattis told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee that the mission remains the same: to train, advise and assist Afghan forces so that they can defend their own country and “terrorists can find no haven” there.
Later, he said he could imagine the U.S. helping train Afghan security forces “years from now,” even after the country is stabilized.
President Barack Obama ended the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan in 2014. Throughout his administration and that of his predecessor, Obama’s White House closely controlled U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. Trump came into office saying he intended to give his generals more leeway, and Mattis has said the new authority will help him improve management of the war. In April, the president gave Mattis authority to set U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Syria.
Mattis was sharply criticized on Tuesday by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who complained about the administration’s failure to determine an Afghanistan strategy, saying it “makes it hard” for Congress to support the administration’s war efforts. Mattis told McCain a strategy would be presented by the middle of July.
Mattis said in testimony Tuesday that the strategy is being developed in a broader context that includes Afghanistan’s neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, as well as India. All have political stakes in the outcome of the war. Mattis said there is a role for the State Department in putting diplomatic and economic pressure on these countries.
Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has told Congress he could use an infusion of U.S. and allied troops to bolster support for the Afghan army.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon was considering a request for roughly 3,000 more troops, mainly for training and advising. That decision, however, has been stalled by the administration’s Afghan review and a push for NATO to contribute more troops.
Pressed about the plan Tuesday, Mattis cited ongoing efforts to ensure NATO participation so that it’s “not all on the backs of American taxpayers.”
He added: “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now. And we will correct this as soon as possible.”
The Taliban’s resurgence has been coupled with a growing threat from Islamic State militants trying to establish a foothold in the country. The increased fight has led to a recent string of American deaths.