The Cable

As More Troops Deploy to Afghanistan, Pentagon Mum on Numbers

Mattis says around 3,000 soldiers will train and advise Afghan forces in their fight with the Taliban, senators angry at lack of details.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrives at Forward Operating Base Gamberi east of Kabul.  Thomas Watkins AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrives at Forward Operating Base Gamberi east of Kabul. Thomas Watkins AFP/Getty Images

American forces are once again heading into combat in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary James Mattis told lawmakers Tuesday, but Afghan forces will do the bulk of the fighting while the Americans will provide support and bring artillery and air support. In a reversal however, the Pentagon no longer plans to detail troop numbers or destinations, angering lawmakers who pressed for more transparency.

Mattis has signed off on sending at least 3,000 more soldiers to the 16-year-old war, and told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the idea is to use the new troops much like American forces are currently arrayed in Iraq and Syria, where they provide advice and call in air and artillery strikes on insurgent positions.

“Our advisors will accompany tactical units to advise and bring NATO fire support to bear when needed,” Mattis said. “Make no mistake, this is combat duty. But the Afghan forces remain in the lead for the fighting.”

While playing up the mission, the latest U.S. effort to stamp out a resurgent Taliban, the Pentagon is refusing to divulge the exact number of troops being deployed. That’s a sharp break from the regular announcements of troop rotations the military has conducted over the last decade and a half.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) sought to press Mattis on whether he would be “honest with the American people” about troop numbers, but he declined, suggesting that the Taliban would benefit.

“No, ma’am, if it involves telling the enemy something that will help them,” Mattis said.

Neither Mattis nor Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who also testified, explained just how public deployment numbers might help the Taliban. And local news reports detailing troop deployments from U.S. Army bases to Afghanistan are widely available; those reports suggest about 2,700 U.S. soldiers have already deployed, or will soon deploy, as part of the latest surge.

Last month, the Pentagon, after long insisting that 8,400 troops were deployed in Afghanistan, admitted that it actually has about 11,000 troops there.

“We’ll give approximate numbers,” Mattis said. “We’re not hiding this. But I’d rather not say the specific capabilities, the specific numbers.”

Lawmakers pressed the generals on more than just troop numbers. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, took both to task for failing to provide information to Congress about the Trump administration’s new strategy in Afghanistan.

The Senate Armed Services Committee “still does not know many of the crucial details of the strategy. This is totally unacceptable,” McCain said. “We will not accept a lack of information, a lack of a strategy, and a lack of communication with this committee.”

After the hearing, McCain told reporters that his committee will refuse to confirm any Trump nominees to the Pentagon until he receives more information about the administration’s strategy in both Afghanistan and Iraq. There are still many critical top posts that remain unfilled.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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