WASHINGTON – Senators sharply criticized Pentagon leaders Tuesday for not completing a new strategy for the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan, as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis acknowledged that "the enemy is surging right now."
Just a few hours later, President Donald Trump gave Mattis the authority to make decisions on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, U.S. officials told The Associated Press.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the decision publicly before an official announcement, said the move gives Mattis the ability to adjust troop levels more quickly. Mattis can also end the current cap on Afghanistan troop levels.
At the Senate hearing earlier, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., demanded that Mattis wrap up his plan for the war, threatening that, "unless we get a strategy from you, you're going to get a strategy from us." He said he had expected the plan in the first 30 to 60 days of the new administration and snapped: "We want a strategy. I don't think that's a helluva lot to ask."
Mattis, in response, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he will provide details on the new strategy for the war in mid-July.
"We're putting it together now and there are going to be — there are actions being taken to make certain that we don't pay a price for the delay," he said. "But we recognize the need for urgency and your criticism is fair, sir."
Mattis did not say what those steps are.
The U.S. has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has told Congress that he could use an infusion of U.S. and allied troops to bolster support for the Afghan army.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon was considering a request for roughly 3,000 more troops, mainly for training and advising. That decision, however, has been stalled by the broader administration review of Afghan policy and a push for NATO to contribute more troops.
Mattis, when pressed again about the plan, said getting a government-wide strategy can't be done quickly, and that there are ongoing efforts to ensure NATO participation so that it's "not all on the backs of American taxpayers."
He added: "We are not winning in Afghanistan right now. And we will correct this as soon as possible."
The Taliban's resurgence has been coupled with a growing threat from Islamic State militants trying to establish a foothold in the country. The increased fight has led to a recent string of American deaths.
Three U.S. soldiers were killed and another wounded Saturday when they were attacked by an Afghan soldier, who was then killed. And two U.S. Army Rangers died in a April 27 raid on an IS compound in eastern Afghanistan. Officials were investigating whether they were killed by friendly fire in the opening minutes of the three-hour battle. Their deaths came just days after a U.S. Army special forces soldier was also killed in the region.
The Afghanistan war has been dragging on since October 2001, and the U.S.-led coalition ended their combat mission against the Taliban in 2014 but they are increasingly involved in backing up Afghan forces on the battlefield.
Asked what he hoped the situation in Afghanistan would look like a year from now, Mattis said violence would be down, government corruption would be reduced and the Taliban would be "rolled back," with less freedom of movement on the battlefield.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that he hoped Afghan troop casualties would be lower a year from now. And he said a key to that will be the need for the U.S. to assist the Afghans in planning operations and providing aviation support while Kabul works to increase its combat air power.
McCain, however, listed the names of the three 101st Airborne Division soldiers who were killed Saturday and said, "Let's not ask these families to sacrifice any further without a strategy which we can then take and implement and help you. I'm fighting as hard as I can to increase defense spending. It's hard when we have no strategy to pursue."
On separate issues, Mattis and Dunford were asked about the Mideast diplomatic rift and alleged Russian meddling in last year's U.S. presidential election.
On Russia, Mattis said, "This sort of misbehavior has got to face consequences, and not just by the United States but more broadly." He added that the Trump administration is working on a comprehensive cyber defense strategy, but in the meantime the U.S. has enough understanding of Russia's cyber actions to defend against them.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., asked Dunford whether the diplomatic rift between Qatar and several of its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, is impeding U.S. military operations, given that the U.S. uses Qatar's al-Udeid air base as a critical air operations center for the wars.
"It is not," Dunford said.