President Donald Trump has has given the Pentagon unilateral authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, the WSJ and Reuters reported overnight, clearing the way for the military to intensify its fight against the Taliban and opening the door for future troop increases requested by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. While no immediate decision had been made about the troop levels, which are now set at about 8,400, the Pentagon is currently weighing plans to send between 3,000 and 5,000 additional troops.
The news comes after Mattis said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee that "We are not winning in Afghanistan right now. And we will correct this as soon as possible." Mattis said the Taliban were "surging" at the moment, something he said he intended to address.
The decision is similar to one announced in April that applied to U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Syria, and came as Mattis warned Congress the U.S.-backed Afghan forces were not beating the Taliban despite more than 15 years of war. After the official announcement control over troop decisions to the Pentagon, expected to be announced on Wednesday, sets the stage for U.S. commanders to decide to reverse course in Afghanistan and begin sending more forces to the country after years of reductions in the hope that Kabul could handle internal threats on its own, the WSJ notes.
According to the WSJ, the White House decision to cede authority to Mr. Mattis is another reflection of Mr. Trump’s push to give the military wide latitude around the world. The White House has already given the Pentagon more power to carry out strikes in Yemen and Somalia. Mr. Trump removed a cap on troop levels in Iraq. And he approved Pentagon plans to send more U.S. troops and firepower into Syria to fight Islamic State.
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has been urging the Trump administration for months to send more troops to Afghanistan. But a decision to do so has met with resistance from some members of the Trump administration, who are wary of being dragged back into a fight that could require more forces, firepower and money.
A former U.S. official told Reuters 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. Critics say delegating too much authority to the military does not shield Trump from political responsibility during battlefield setbacks and could reduce the chances for diplomats to warn of potential blowback from military decisions.
It has been four months since Army General John Nicholson, who leads U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, said he needed "a few thousand" additional forces, some potentially drawn from U.S. allies.
As a reminder, the U.S. once had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, after then-President Barack Obama approved a military surge in 2009 at a time when the war against the Taliban appeared to be in danger of failure. Before leaving office, Mr. Obama declared an end to major military operations and dramatically scaled back the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. There now are fewer than 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, primarily to help advise and train Afghan forces, which have struggled to secure their country.
The Pentagon has been weighing plans to send between 3,000 and 5,000 troops to Afghanistan. But that decision could still take weeks, the U.S. official said. Mattis, testifying Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that he expected to complete a military strategy for Afghanistan by next month. That could mean that a decision on troop numbers could occur simultaneously, or sometime afterward.
Still, some 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. To date, more than 2,300 Americans have been killed and more than 17,000 wounded since the war began in 2001.