Secretary of Defense James Mattis can only raise troop numbers in Afghanistan by approximately 3,900 before having to further consult the the White House, a memo obtained July 6 by The Wall Street Journal revealed.
The memo casts further light on President Donald Trump's June 2017 decision to allow Mattis to set troop levels in Afghanistan. The decision follows months of deliberations by the White House on the Trump administration's path forward in Afghanistan.
Mattis is reportedly mulling sending his maximum allotted number of 4,000 more troops, but has publicly insisted that any troop increases will be paired with a broader political strategy to force reconciliation with the Taliban movement, saying "we're not looking at a purely military strategy." Reconciliation would entail the Taliban dropping their armed insurrection against the Afghan government and joining the political process.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Iraqi Minister of Defense Arfan al-Hayali. DoD photo by USAF Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley.
"We're talking now about putting what we call NATO air support, down at the brigade level, so when they are in contact, the high ground is now going to be owned by the Afghans. It's a fundamental change to how we bring our … real superiority in terms of air support to help them. In other words, we're not talking about putting our troops on the front line," Mattis explained in mid-June regarding forthcoming changes to the Afghan review.
Both CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph Votel and US Forces Afghanistan commander Gen. John Nicholson have said that they need a few thousand more troops to more effectively train, advise, and assist the Afghan forces. Nicholson indicated before Congress that more troops would allow him to deploy troops closer to the front lines, and embed advisors at lower levels of the chain of command within the Afghan forces.
US Forces Afghanistan commander Gen. John Nicholson. Photo from DoD.
Mattis is expected to bring his final proposal for the way forward in Afghanistan in mid-July. In the meantime, the US effort in Afghanistan is not going well. The Afghan National Security Forces are beset by corruption and suffering devastating losses, and it is unclear what additional advisors can realistically do to turn the army into an autonomous fighting force.
The US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction noted in late April that the security force's casualties continue to be "shockingly high." The report highlighted that 807 Afghan troops were killed in just the first six weeks of 2017, and that nearly 35 percent of the force chooses not to re-enlist each year.