WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that the U.S. is “not winning” the war against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, and that he will brief Congress by mid-July on an updated strategy for the nearly 16-year conflict.
Mattis made the comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) questioned why the Donald Trump administration has yet to present a new strategy for the conflict.
“We want a strategy, and I don’t think that’s a hell of a lot to ask,” McCain told Mattis. “We’re now six months into this administration. We still haven’t got a strategy for Afghanistan. It makes it hard for us to support you when we don’t have a strategy. We know what the strategy was for the last eight years: Don’t lose. That hasn’t worked … We just lost three brave Americans.”
Mattis, who testified beside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, conceded that McCain’s criticisms were “fair” and said that the Defense Department recognizes “the need for urgency.”
“We are not winning in Afghanistan right now. And we will correct this as soon as possible,” he said, including that the Defense Department will brief Congress by mid-July on the updated strategy in detail. Mattis on Monday said the U.S. would take a regional approach to the conflict, rather than looking at Afghanistan in isolation.
Mattis’ remarks came weeks after press reports circulated quoting unnamed U.S. officials as saying the U.S. was debating sending 3,000 to 5,000 more troops to the country and widening military authorities for the fight.
The head of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, and the head of the U.S. military command overseeing the Middle East, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, have endorsed the deployment of “several thousand” additional NATO troops to train Afghan security forces and break the conflict from a state of “stalemate.”
McCain said the Defense Department’s budget request cannot be fulfilled without an updated strategy in Afghanistan, and in conflicts around the world more broadly. He told Mattis that if Congress does not hear the administration’s strategy soon, “you’re going to get a strategy from us,” adding that “Congress owes the American people a strategy.”
Mattis, under questioning from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), advocated against pulling out of Afghanistan. He said violence originating in Afghanistan would not stay within the borders of the country, but would go on to threaten the rest of the world. He said winning in Afghanistan would mean building up local forces to the point that they could “handle the violence” with the help of international partners.
“With our allies, it would probably require a residual force doing training and maintaining the high-end capability so that the threats, should they mature, we can take them down and keep this at a level of threat that the local government and the local security forces can handle,” Mattis said. “It’s going to be an era of frequent skirmishes and it’s going to require a change in our approach from the last several years if we’re to get it to that position.”
Dunford, when asked about the state of the war in Afghanistan by Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), said: “I don’t assess we’re in better shape than we were last year.”
As of February, the U.S. military assessed that the Afghan government was in control of or influenced 59.7 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, nearly an 11 percent-point decrease from the same time in 2016, according to data released by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
“The Taliban had a good year last year and they’re trying to have a good one this year,” Mattis said, adding that it appears the Taliban is currently “surging.”
Mattis said that success a year from now means that violence in the population areas is reduced, that corruption in the Afghan government is driven down and that the Taliban no longer has freedom of movement throughout the country.
Dunford said it is a priority to reduce Afghan military casualties, including by improving Afghan fire and air support capabilities to aid the fledgling ground forces. In the first three two months of 2017, more than 800 Afghan security personnel were killed and more 1,320 were wounded, according to SIGAR. Dunford said that the U.S. must support the Afghan forces as they develop the capabilities.
Civilian casualties in 2016 hit record highs, according to data from the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, which began tracking the deaths in 2009. Of the over 11,400 casualties, nearly 3,500 were killed and 7,920 were wounded, marking a three percent increase in casualties from the year before.
The U.S. currently has near 8,400 troops in Afghanistan, mostly operating in a NATO-led mission to train, advise and assist Afghan forces and a U.S.-led mission to fight terror groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS. About 5,000 other NATO troops are participating in the 28-nation NATO-led mission.
Three U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan and another wounded Saturday when an Afghan soldier opened fire on them, raising the number of U.S. troops killed in 2017 to six individuals. Since the war in Afghanistan started in 2001, more than 2,300 U.S. troops have been killed and more than 17,000 have been wounded.