Trump gives Pentagon authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan

Donald Trump has given the Pentagon complete authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, hours after his Defence Secretary suggested the U.S. was losing the war. Mattis called for the government to “correct this” as soon as possible.

But the White House “already has given Mattis similar authority to beef up troop levels for the anti-ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria”, he adds.

The delegation of this authority does not in itself change the force levels for Afghanistan, the secretary said.

“This administration will not repeat the mistakes of the past”.

Mattis said as much on Tuesday at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. A former USA official said such a decision might allow the White House to argue that it was not micromanaging as much as the administration of former President Barack Obama was sometimes accused of doing.

Mattis said the delegation of authority does not necessarily mean the US military footprint will increase, arguing it gives the Pentagon needed flexibility in adjusting to battlefield conditions.

That strategy is still technically in development, but its broad outlines – an increase in special operations forces to train, advise and assist Afghan forces; a more robust plan to go after elements in Pakistan that aid the Taliban; the deployment of more air power and artillery; and a political commitment to the survival of the current government in Kabul – have been in place since April. “We can not allow Afghanistan to once again become a launching point for attacks on our homeland or on our allies”.

“If all we are doing is tinkering around at the margin of a strategy that amounts to ‘Muddle through and hope for a miracle, ‘ then 3,000 to 5,000 troops are not going to make a difference”, Stephen Biddle, a professor at George Washington University and an Afghanistan expert, told AFP.

Some US officials have questioned the benefit of sending more troops to Afghanistan because any politically palatable number would not be enough to turn the tide, much less create stability and security.

More than 2,300 Americans have been killed and more than 17,000 have been wounded in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001.

Prior to the White House decision, Mr Mattis had warned that the Taliban was surging – having claimed a series of deadly attacks, including against Afghan military bases and positions – and that America still was “not winning” in the country almost 16 years after the US-led invasion there.

Earlier in the day, Mattis dismissed the prospect of a return to the major USA troop deployments in Afghanistan, which peaked at more than 100,000 in 2011 during the Obama administration.

“Thanks to the vigilance and skill of the US military and our many allies and partners, horrors on the scale of September 11, 2001, have not been repeated on our shores”, Mattis said in a written statement released this afternoon. The dire situation was brought home over the weekend when the Taliban claimed credit for infiltrating an Afghan unit and killing three us soldiers in Nangarhar province.

The New York Times first reported the policy decision, and Mattis confirmed this on Wednesday.

He went on to say this decision was part of a broader strategy the U.S is developing that addresses its role in Afghanistan and beyond.

“The worldwide community is going to have to hold with it, and when we reduce, we reduce based on conditions on the ground, not on an arbitrary timeline”, Mattis told lawmakers.