Lawmakers press Pentagon, Trump admin for better details on Afghanistan strategy

Lawmakers press Pentagon, Trump admin for better details on Afghanistan strategy
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Gina Harkins is MOAA's Senior Staff Writer. She can be reached at ginah@moaa.org. Follow her on Twitter at: @ginaaharkins.

Members of Congress say the Trump administration and military leaders aren't doing enough to communicate their plans for ending the nation's longest war and defeating terror groups in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford were grilled about President Donald Trump's new strategy for Afghanistan this week during back-to-back hearings on Capitol Hill. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said lawmakers aren't getting the information they need to make informed decisions about troops' resources. 

“In the six weeks since the president made his announcement, this committee - and the Congress more broadly - still does not know many of the crucial details of this strategy,” said McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “This is totally unacceptable.” 

Trump laid out his strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia while addressing troops during an August visit to Fort Myer, Va. He said the military would be shifting from a time-based approach that required troops to leave Afghanistan by a specific date to a strategy based on conditions. 

“I've said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin, or end, military options,” Trump said. “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.”

But that information is vital for public debate, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y) argued during the hearing.

“I'm very concerned that the American people cannot make good decisions about our continued investments in this 16-year conflict when they're not told the full extent of our commitment and the number of servicemembers we are sending,” Gillibrand said. 

Pentagon leaders will brief lawmakers in closed settings, Mattis said, but they won't provide information about troop numbers or their intended locations in public forums. 

“No, ma'am,” Mattis told Gillibrand, “if it involves telling the enemy something that will help them.” 

A new strategy 

Mattis announced last month that another 3,000 troops would be deploying to Afghanistan. Several senators asked how that increase will make a difference with a surge of 100,000 troops didn't bring the conflict to an end in years past.  

Dunford said DoD reviewed the root causes for the current stalemate in Afghanistan. That helped them develop the new strategy, which he said will bolster the Afghan forces. The U.S. military's objectives there are clear and achievable, he added. 

All six Afghan military corps are - for the first time in this long fight - engaged in offensive operations, Mattis added. Local forces are taking the lead in the fighting there, which is a key component to the new strategy Mattis called “R4+S.” That stands for regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile, and sustain. Here's how he says it will work:

  • Regionalize: The U.S. must recognize that challenges exist beyond Afghanistan. “India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China were considered at the outset, rather than focusing only on Afghanistan and then introducing external variables late in our strategic design,” he said.
  • Realign: The U.S. will shift its main effort toward putting advisors who can provide training and support at the battalion and brigade levels. “The fighting will continue to be carried out by our Afghan partners, but our advisers will accompany tactical units to advise and assist and bring NATO fire support to bear, when needed,” Mattis said.
  • Reinforce: This is where the addition of more than 3,000 troops in Afghanistan will come in. Mattis said he's also talking with NATO allies about increasing their troop levels there. So far, “15 have signaled that they will increase their support,” he said.
  • Reconcile: This is the ultimate end goal, Mattis said. “Convincing our foes that the coalition is committed to a conditions-based outcome,” he said. “It is time for the Taliban to recognize they cannot kill their way to power.”
  • Sustain: Ultimately, the U.S. wants to see “a stabilized Afghanistan through an Afghan-led, Afghan-owed peace process,” Mattis said. 

Mattis and Dunford later testified before the House Armed Services Committee. Members of that committee shared similar concerns about a lack of clarity from the Trump administration on the plan for Afghanistan. 

Congress, McCain said in the first hearing, will not accept a lack of communication or information about this war. 

“We want to be your partners,” McCain told Mattis and Dunford. “But this committee will not be a rubber stamp for any policy or president. We must be well-informed.” 

 

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