Trump gives Pentagon authority to set Afghan troop levels

Trump gives Pentagon authority to set Afghan troop levels
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Defense Secretary James Mattis on Wednesday confirmed to lawmakers that President Trump has given him authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, but said any new additions to U.S. forces there haven’t been decided.

“At noon yesterday, President Trump delegated to me the authority to manage troop numbers in Afghanistan,” Mattis said in his opening remarks at a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing.

Mattis said the decision does not immediately change U.S. troop levels, now at 8,400 in Afghanistan, and the decision does not signal a broader change in military strategy there.

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Mattis added that the Pentagon is working on a broad Afghanistan policy to be sent to Trump in several weeks. He added that the troop levels will be consistent with Trump's “strategic direction and foreign policy.”

Trump delegated the authority “at the end of a very long discussion, months of discussion,” Mattis said.

The former U.S. Central Command head would not say how many more troops were likely to be sent to help end the 16-year war in Afghanistan, but he will brief Congress on the number within "weeks."

Mattis assured lawmakers that he had not “been given some carte blanche to draw up ... a number that’s out of step with the strategy.”

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“I don’t keep any secrets from the president,” Mattis said. “There are frequent meetings, we go into a great deal of detail, and the president is keenly interested – not in all the tactical details – but getting the strategy right and knowing enough of the tactical detail that he’s informed.”

“He is a very active participant when we sit down with him,” Mattis said.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenate Democrats to House: Tamp down the impeachment talk Threat of impeachment takes oxygen out of 2019 agenda Senate Democrats request watchdog, Red Cross probe DHS detention facilities MORE (D-Ill.) pressed Mattis on what the additional troops would do to help end the years-long conflict.

“What are the likely prospects that sending more military troops, risking more American lives, spending billions more in dollars, will make any difference 16 years from now than it has for the first 16 years?” Durbin asked.

Mattis said that the Pentagon has changed priorities and will focus on “a more regional construct” in battling extremist groups.

“We consider things, issues from India and Pakistan all the way over to Iran because they're the bordering nations. And ignoring those means you put in a strategy that has not taken into account some of the most fundamental factors that would impact on its success or failure," he said.

Mattis's comments Wednesday came a day after he told lawmakers that the U.S. is “not winning” in Afghanistan “and we will correct this as soon as possible.”

The defense chief also promised to brief Congress in detail on a new strategy for Afghanistan by mid-July.

The U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan are on a dual mission of training, advising and assisting Afghan troops in their fight against the Taliban and conducting counterterrorism missions against groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Trump is soon to decide on a request to send 3,000 to 5,000 more U.S. troops to the country.

Updated: 1:28 p.m.