Trump hands to Pentagon troop level decisions on Afghanistan

Posted June 15, 2017

The "Taliban was emboldened" by the Obama administration's decision to pull out forces in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday.

"We'd consider issues from India and Pakistan, all the way over to Iran, because those are the bordering nations and ignoring those means you put in a strategy that has not taken into account some of the most fundamental factors that would impact on its success or failure", Mattis said, under questioning from Sen. "The delegation of this authority - consistent with the authority President Trump granted me two months ago for Iraq and Syria - does not, at this time, change the troop numbers for Afghanistan".

When asked whether he expected to increase US troop levels in Afghanistan to anywhere near USA 2011 peak of about 100,000 troops, Mattis dismisses the chances.

"I've been given some carte blanche to - to draw up a strategy or a number that's out of step with the strategy", Mattis said. He said he hasn't made any decisions about sending more troops into the 16-year running war.

The new admission from the retired Marine Corps four-star general comes as Congress grows increasingly impatient for a new strategy from the Trump administration for America's longest war as Taliban insurgents continue to regain ground and increase power, including launching coordinated attacks on American troops and journalists in recent weeks.

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American military commanders in Afghanistan and the surrounding region have requested thousands of additional boots on the ground for months to boost the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation troop presence there. One idea is to provide just enough American presence to help the Afghan government and national security forces to keep the Taliban at bay.

Later, he said he could imagine the US helping train Afghan security forces "years from now", even after the country is stabilized. Throughout his tenure, Obama's White House reviewed even small changes in US troop levels in Afghanistan. Jon Tester (D-N.M.), Mattis said that peace in Afghanistan is possible but will require the global community to "hold with it and when we reduce, we reduce based on conditions on the ground, not an arbitrary timeline". Mattis said there is a role for the State Department in putting diplomatic and economic pressure on these countries.

Mattis said that adding more forces in Afghanistan would "restore the high ground" by lending more US assets to help the Afghans with air support and in turn would buy them more time to mature their forces and reduce casualties. "I think right now what we have to look at is what kind of capabilities do we bring to them because the Afghans have proven they will fight". Additional conversations must be had if the Pentagon decides it needs a few thousand more additional troops in coming years, he said.

That decision, however, had been stalled by a broader review by the Trump administration of Afghan policy and a push for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to contribute more troops.