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McCain Scolds Mattis for Delay on Afghan War Strategy

SASC Chairman John McCain and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed visit with Secretary of Defense James Mattis before a hearing on Capitol Hill June 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
SASC Chairman John McCain and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed visit with Secretary of Defense James Mattis before a hearing on Capitol Hill June 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A key Republican lawmaker criticized Pentagon and administration officials on Tuesday for failing to deliver a timely strategy for victory in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis -- accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford and the Pentagon's new comptroller, David Norquist -- appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss President Donald Trump's proposed fiscal 2018 defense budget.

The spending plan includes $575 billion for the Defense Department's base budget -- about $52 billion above the permitted cap under the Budget Control Act of 2011 -- and about $65 billion for the so-called war budget for overseas contingencies operations, or OCO. The administration has also requested about $29 billion for Energy Department defense and nuclear programs.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the committee, voiced concern that the budget request is "arbitrary and inadequate" and "represents just a 3-percent increase over President Obama's defense plan."

But McCain's frustration bubbled over when he asked why there is still no strategy for winning in Afghanistan.

"We are now six months into this administration; we still haven't got a strategy for Afghanistan," he said. "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. That hasn't worked."

McCain asked Mattis when Congress can expect a new strategy.

Mattis replied that he plans to brief Congress on the strategy in mid-July.

"We are putting it together now, and there are actions being taken to make certain that we don't pay a price for the delay," he said. "We recognize the need for urgency, and your criticism is fair, sir."

Mattis is expected to back the long-standing request of Army Gen. John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for at least 3,000 more troops to battle the Islamic State and a resurgent Taliban.

The Trump administration has yet to sign off on the request, which would boost the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan to about 11,500, compared to more than 100,000 in country before the drawdown ordered by former President Barack Obama. NATO and coalition allies have a total of about 5,000 troops in Afghanistan.

McCain told Mattis that he is a "great admirer of yours, Mr. Secretary ... but we just can't keep going like this. You can't expect us to fulfill the three requirements that you gave -- funding increase, pass the budget, and present a stable budget -- if you don't give us a strategy."

"I hope you understand that I am not criticizing you, but there are problems within this administration," McCain said. "I was confident that within the first 30 to 60 days we would have a strategy of which to start working."

The senator then reminded Mattis that it's his responsibility to present a strategy for victory in Afghanistan.

"It's not our job. It's yours," McCain said. "The frustration that I feel is obviously palpable. Do you agree that we are not winning in Afghanistan?"

Mattis assured McCain, "I understand the urgency; I understand it's my responsibility.

"We are not winning in Afghanistan right now, and we will correct this as soon as possible," the defense secretary added. "I believe the three things we are asking for stand on their own merit as we look more broadly at the protection of the protection of the country."

Appearing on Capitol Hill on Monday, Mattis put bipartisan blame on Congress for failing to lift budget caps that he said had stifled efforts to rebuild the military and improve readiness.

At Tuesday's hearing, Mattis said the administration believes Congress must "repeal the Budget Control Act and sequestration that follows" before the military can begin to reverse this long period of decay.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., questioned why Trump didn't take a stronger stance on the issue and call for the repeal of budget caps in the budget request.

"Wouldn't it be not only appropriate but essential that that be incorporated in the president's budget because the ramifications of sequestration are clearly played out in every aspect of the budget?" Reed asked. "And remaining silent, as I believe he did in the budget, leaves a lot of people wondering what is his real position or does he even understand what's going on?"

Mattis countered by saying, "I think we all know what needs to be done. I have heard it from Republicans and Democrats on this committee for a long time."

Reed said that the president has so far provided no guidance on how to do away with the budget caps.

And while there is no strategy for Afghanistan, "There is no budget strategy here either -- just, 'Congress do something,' " Reed said. "And I think the chairman's point is it's very late in the game and the ability for us just institutionally to rewrite a budget to reallocate resources between defense and non-defense and increase defense spending without any guideline or framework from the administration -- it's not impossible, but it is very difficult. Do you sense that?"

Mattis responded, "Sen. Reed, we have submitted a presidential budget for the Department of Defense. We believe that is guidance. We have submitted the unfunded priority list from the Pentagon in accordance with the will of Congress, and we believe that is guidance for what we need."

Reed told Mattis that "the budget that's submitted will not work."

"If nothing is done to change BCA, the $52 billion we give you, we will take it back in fact in a more harmful fashion than if we didn't give it to you. If we left the BCA levels, at least you could prioritize," he said.

McCain reminded everyone at the hearing that "it's now mid-June and the Congress hasn't passed a fiscal 2018 budget, something that should embarrass every member of the Senate and House."

"If we don't begin negotiating today, it is very likely that the military will begin the fiscal year on a continuing resolution," he said.

The delay is in part because the Trump administration held back its submission of a proposed overall federal budget of $1.1 trillion until late May. And the fiscal 2017 defense budget was not approved until April of this year -- seven months late.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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