Mattis Says US is “Not Winning” in Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee, June 13, 2017. DOD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith.

Facing intense questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told Congress on Tuesday that “we are not winning in Afghanistan now.”

“I believe that the enemy is surging right now,” Mattis added. “The Taliban had a good year last year and they’re trying to have another one.”

SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took the lead in delivering a series of sharp criticisms of the Department of Defense for not turning around what he said were the failures of the Obama Administration’s “don’t lose” strategy in Afghanistan, which he said amounted to no strategy at all.

“It’s hard for us to act” and give the military what it needs, “when you don’t give us a strategy,” he told Mattis. “It’s been six months,” he reminded the Secretary. “We want a strategy and it’s not a hell of a lot to ask.”

Mattis told McCain that “by mid-July we will be able to brief you in detail” on a new strategy for Afghanistan. He said the that even with a victory and withdrawal of its forces, the US must be careful not to leave “ungoverned spaces” where extremism can fester. A key marker of victory would be that “the Afghan government with international help will be able to handle the violence” within its borders, added Mattis, who said “political corruption” is currently the main challenge.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford added that “reducing Afghan casualties” was another top priority.

Mattis and Dunford also had harsh words for congressional inaction on providing a stable military budget. In his written statement, Mattis said Congress had “sidelined itself from its active constitutional oversight role” by refusing to repeal the Budget Control Act of 2011 and its sequestration spending caps. He said that “the damage has been severe, hollowing out our force.”

Dunford told the committee, “our competitive advantage has eroded” over the past 10 years, and he warned that the US military would face “significant casualties and significant time delays” within the next five years if the situation is not addressed.

“The military capabilities we have,” he said, “are not sufficient to meet our national interests.”

In response to questions about why the department had not asked for more than a three percent spending increase to address the shortfalls, Mattis said the DOD is “trying to be informed by the reality of what the law says,” indicating that the administration’s military budget already exceeds the BCA caps by $52 billion.

Both Dunford and Mattis reiterated that the FY18 budget is a starting place for a military rebuild. After the completion of the ongoing DOD strategy review, both said they plan to advocate for more spending for FY19.

“We’ll be coming to you for more,” at that time, Mattis told McCain, indicating that future growth in military spending requests would be closer to five percent.