The head of U.S. Central Command said on Wednesday that the Pentagon is reviewing whether to send additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan.
“We are in the process of going through a review of our posture in Afghanistan and how we have to look at that going forward,” Gen. Joseph Votel told lawmakers.
Votel would not give additional details on the review during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on security challenges in the Middle East, saying its findings are “pre-decisional.”
“I’m not sure I want to get out in front of [Defense Secretary James Mattis] in announcing anything in particular, but it is a key topic here and one that Secretary Mattis has been very engaged with us on,” he said.
Votel told Senate lawmakers earlier this month that he anticipates more U.S. forces being sent to Afghanistan to break what he calls a stalemate in a 15-year conflict.
There are roughly 8,400 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan on a dual mission of training, advising and assisting Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban and conducting counterterrorism missions against groups such as al Qaeda.
But Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February he has a “shortfall of a few thousand” troops in the mission.
Votel on Wednesday also addressed the recent rise of civilian casualties from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and allegations that U.S.-led coalition forces are responsible.
He agreed with an official's comments made Tuesday that “there is a fair chance that our operations may have contributed to civilian casualties,” but added that the investigation continues and “there’s still much to learn” from the initial assessments.
“We acknowledge our responsibility to operate at a higher standard,” he told lawmakers. “We take every allegation seriously and we are executing a well developed process to assess and if necessary investigate these allegations.”
More than 200 civilians were reportedly killed when a building in west Mosul, Iraq, collapsed from what may have been a U.S airstrike. The Pentagon is reviewing the incident.
The recent civilian casualty reports and President Trump’s promises to review the rules of engagement in the Middle East have left human rights groups and independent monitors suspicious that Trump has relaxed the rules.
Votel stressed that though the nature of the fight and the Pentagon’s approach to it have evolved over the two-and-half-year operation, “We have not relaxed the rules of engagement.”
Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) defended the four-star general and asked that “everyone be cautious” in addressing and investigating the airstrikes.
“In a dense urban environment there may well be some casualties and even the finest military in the world can make mistakes,” Thornberry said. “But we also know for certain that ISIS uses human shields, and that they can arrange civilian deaths to further their misguided narratives. I think we should always give the benefit of the doubt to the professionals who are working every day to keep us safe.”