President Trump is the commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces, but he's increasingly letting his defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, run America's wars. Following his decision in April to give Mattis authority to decide troop levels in Iraq and Syria, Trump extended that authority to the war in Afghanistan on Tuesday, The New York Times reports. The White House is expected to announce the decision on Wednesday, a U.S. official tells The Wall Street Journal. Trump has also handed Mattis broad authority over strikes in Yemen and Somalia.
The U.S. and NATO allies invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 to oust the Taliban, which had sheltered the Al Qaeda perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Some 13,000 U.S. and NATO troops are still fighting the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State, mostly by advising embattled Afghan forces. U.S. military commanders have requested 3,000 to 5,000 more U.S. troops for Afghanistan, and Mattis has signaled that he will comply. "The Taliban had a good year last year, and they're trying to have a good one this year," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. "Right now, I believe the enemy is surging," and the U.S. is "not winning."
Asked what "winning" would look like in Afghanistan, Mattis said it would "be an era of frequent skirmishing, and it's going to require a change in our approach from the last several years if we're to get it to that position," where local Afghan forces could tamp down violence while U.S. and NATO forces in the country offered advice, intelligence, and airstrikes. More than 5,000 Afghan forces were killed in the first eight months of 2016, and more than 3,000 civilians were killed all year. More than 2,300 members of the U.S. military have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, including three on Saturday.