The Pentagon will send almost 4,000 additional American forces to Afghanistan, according to a Trump administration official, an attempt to break a stalemate in a war that has now passed to a third US commander-in-chief.
The decision by defense secretary Jim Mattis could be announced as early as next week, the official said, and will be the largest deployment of American manpower under Donald Trump’s young presidency.
It follows Trump’s move to give Mattis the authority to set troop levels and seeks to address assertions by the top US commander in Afghanistan that he does not have enough forces to help Afghanistan’s army against a resurgent Taliban insurgency. The rising threat posed by Islamic State extremists, evidenced in a rash of deadly attacks in the capital city of Kabul, has only fueled calls for a stronger US presence, as have several recent American combat deaths.
The bulk of the additional troops will train and advise Afghan forces, according to the administration official, who was not authorized to discuss details of the decision publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. A smaller number would be assigned to counterterror operations against the Taliban and Isis, the official said.
Although Trump has delegated authority for US troop numbers in Afghanistan, the responsibility for America’s wars and the men and women who fight in them rests on his shoulders. Trump has inherited America’s longest conflict with no clear endpoint or a defined strategy for American success, though US troop levels are far lower than they were under presidents Barack Obama and George W Bush. In 2009, Obama authorized a surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, bringing the total there to more than 100,000, before drawing down over the rest of his presidency.
Mattis’ deployment of more troops will be far smaller than Obama’s.
While military leaders have consistently said more forces are needed, a decision had been tied up in a lengthy, wider debate about America’s long-term military, diplomatic and economic strategy for ending the war. Gen John Nicholson, the top US commander there, has said the troops are necessary to properly train and advise the Afghan military and perform work handled at greater cost by contractors. Afghan leaders endorse the idea of more US troops, having lost significant ground to the Taliban in recent months.
Obama set a cap a year ago of 8,400 troops in Afghanistan after slowing the pace of what he hoped would be a US withdrawal.
Nevertheless, there are at least another 2,000 US troops in Afghanistan not included in the official count. These include forces that are technically considered temporary even if they have been in the war zone for months.
Trump’s decision on Tuesday to give Mattis authority to set force levels in Afghanistan mirrored similar powers he handed over earlier this year for US fights in Iraq and Syria. The change was made public hours after Senator John McCain, the Senate armed services committee’s Republican chairman, blasted Mattis for the administration’s failure to present an overarching strategy for Afghanistan. McCain, speaking during the defense secretary’s testimony before an armed services committee hearing, said the US was “not winning” in Afghanistan, and Mattis agreed.
The finality of the decision isn’t entirely clear. While Trump has handed over the troop level decision-making, there is nothing preventing him from taking it back.
Mattis has repeatedly stressed that increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan would take place within a broader, long-term strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan.
While the new troops could raise fears of mission creep, Mattis told lawmakers this week that he did not envision returning to the force levels of 2010 to 2011, when Obama thought he could pressure the Taliban into peace talks.
“Reconciliation” remains the goal, Mattis told a House appropriations panel on Thursday, along with reducing Afghan government corruption.
“We’re not looking at a purely military strategy,” he said. “All wars come to an end. Our job is to end it as quickly as possible without losing the very mission that we’ve recognized, through several administrations, that was worth putting those young Americans on the line for.”
There have been almost 2,400 US military deaths in Afghanistan since 2001. Three US soldiers were killed and another was wounded in eastern Afghanistan this weekend in an attack claimed by the Taliban.