A new strategy for Afghanistan is weeks way, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday in a statement that frustrated some lawmakers awaiting a way forward in the United States’ longest war.
Mattis, who testified alongside Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph F. Dunford Jr., added that he expects to brief lawmakers about the new strategy in mid-July.
Mattis’s remarks come months after the Trump administration pledged a new direction in the war-stricken country and weeks since reports of a new U.S. troop surge there began circulating in Washington.
Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and Gen. Joseph Votel, his direct superior at U.S. Central Command, have endorsed a deployment of a “few thousand” more troops to Afghanistan in an effort to break what Pentagon officials call a “stalemate” there.
Lawmakers, including the chairman of the committee, Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), said the Pentagon’s budget requests cannot be fulfilled without a strategy, both in Afghanistan and other parts of the world.
“We can’t keep going like this,” McCain said. “You can’t expect a stable budget if you don’t give us a strategy.”
He added that if the Pentagon doesn’t come up with a strategy for Afghanistan soon, “you’re going to get a strategy from us.”
“Congress owes the American people a strategy,” McCain added.
When asked about the state of the war in Afghanistan, Dunford said, “I don’t assess we’re in better shape than we were last year.”
The new strategy in Afghanistan would include a regional approach, Mattis said, including more contributions from NATO allies. Currently, about 5,000 NATO troops are in Afghanistan, and some countries in the 28-nation alliance have pledged to add more in recent months.
Additionally, Mattis and Dunford said one of their priorities in Afghanistan is to reduce Afghan casualties by increasing U.S. fire and air support for the fledgling Afghan ground forces. In the first eight months of 2016, Afghan forces suffered 15,000 casualties including more than 5,000 killed.
Civilian deaths are also at record highs, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, which began tracking the deaths in 2009. In 2016, there were more than 11,000 civilian casualties, including 3,498 killed.
The Taliban “had a good year last year,” Mattis said, referencing gains made by the militant group that has been battling U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan since 2001.
In June 2016, President Barack Obama gave U.S. troops in Afghanistan more authority to offensively strike the Taliban. More fire support assets, such as artillery and aircraft, atop other authority would mean that Afghan forces probably would become more reliant on U.S. troops, although the strikes would keep Afghan casualties lower. Dunford and Mattis said that this will allow the Afghan air force and other capabilities to continue to develop under the cover of U.S. support. It is unclear, however, how long it could take for Afghan forces to mature enough to match the type of support offered by U.S. forces. Some experts have estimated that it could take years.
There currently are 8,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan who split between providing support to Afghan troops and hunting various terrorist groups spread throughout the country. Three U.S. soldiers were killed Saturday during an apparent insider attack, bringing the total number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan in 2017 to six.
Read more: ‘Band-Aid on a bullet wound’: What America’s new war looks like in Afghanistan’s most violent province