DOD’s New Authority to Set Troop Levels Does Not Mean Immediate Changes

USAF advisers walk Afghan National Army soldiers through an exercise to prepare them to respond to an active shooter threat as part of the train, advise, and assist mission at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Staff photo by Brian Everstine.

The Pentagon’s expanded authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, granted Tuesday by the White House, will be guided by strategy set by the State Department and will not immediately impact the current number of boots on the ground, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Wednesday.

President Trump gave Mattis the authority to decide on the total number of US troops in country, following similar authorities in place for Iraq and Syria. Mattis told lawmakers during a Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee hearing on Wednesday that interagency discussions with State and the Pentagon will “define the way ahead.”

The troop levels will be consistent with Trump’s “strategic direction” and “his foreign policy as dictated by [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson,” said Mattis, who noted there will be months of discussion to shape this plan, and the Pentagon will not have “carte blanche” to make its own decisions.

Mattis told another Senate panel on Tuesday that the US is “not winning” in Afghanistan, and that a new strategy is required. That strategy will be presented this summer, with changes in troop levels to follow.

The US and NATO partners have had to “change the way we fight,” and are now looking more regionally within Afghanistan and changing the way they deal with the government. The US and NATO lost “the high ground” and forced Afghan troops to fight at a disadvantage when coalition aircraft could not directly support Afghans in the fight. The idea was to “wean” the Afghan National Army’s from its need for coalition airpower, but it was a “misguided application” that limited their ability to take on the Taliban.

The loss in momentum isn’t permanent, and Mattis said Wednesday he expects NATO allies to increase their own troop levels in Afghanistan once the US does. The most important mission will be to train and advise Afghan forces, he said.

“What we have to do is get to a point where the Afghan security forces, working for a government that can win the affection and support of its people, can carry out the security mission,” Mattis said.