Defense Secretary James Mattis, facing tough questions from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, said Tuesday that the U.S. and its allies “are not winning” in Afghanistan and promised a new strategy by the middle of July.
McCain slammed the administration and sharply questioned Mattis over why a new strategy has not been developed to help turn the tide of the war in Afghanistan, where the militant Taliban is overwhelming the Afghan government in key parts of the country and other terrorist groups, like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, have made new inroads.
“We want a strategy, and I don’t think that’s a hell of a lot to ask,” McCain, an Arizona Republican, told Mattis. “We’re now six months into this administration. We still haven’t got a strategy for Afghanistan. It makes it hard for us to support you when we don’t have a strategy. We know what the strategy was for the last eight years: Don’t lose.”
Mattis conceded that “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now” and pledged that “we will correct this as soon as possible.”
“I believe by mid-July, we’ll be able to brief you in detail,” Mattis added. “We’re putting it together now and … there are actions being taken to make certain that we don’t pay a price for the delay. But we recognize the need for urgency, and your criticism is fair.”
Mattis’ comments echo statements from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, that the Afghan government and Taliban forces are at a stalemate.
The United States has roughly 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. Nicholson has said that several thousand more are needed to support the Afghan security forces.
McCain also warned Mattis that senators will “start getting more vocal in our criticism” if a plan isn’t delivered soon.
“I was confident that within the first 30 to 60 days we would have a strategy from which to start working,” McCain said. “So all I can tell you is that unless we get a strategy from you, you’re going to get a strategy from us.”
Asked later by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) about what “winning” in Afghanistan looks like, Mattis said Afghan forces, with the aid of allies, should be able to “handle the violence” there.
“It would probably require a residual [U.S] force doing training and maintaining … high-end capabilities,” Mattis added.