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Mattis Gets Authority in Afghanistan, But Trump Remains Engaged

President Trump and Defense Secretary Mattis attend a Cabinet meeting, Monday, June 12, 2017, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Trump and Defense Secretary Mattis attend a Cabinet meeting, Monday, June 12, 2017, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Thursday that President Donald Trump is still fully engaged on Afghanistan despite his delegation of authority on strategy and troop levels to the military.

"We will define the way ahead, and I will set the military commitment" in Afghanistan, Mattis said in repeating an earlier statement. He added, "He [Trump] has not delegated all authority to me. He maintains strategic oversight.

"I assure you this is not a carte blanche for me," Mattis said in testimony to the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, wrapping up a weeklong series of hearings for him and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford on Trump's proposed fiscal 2018 Defense Department budget.

In testimony Wednesday to the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mattis confirmed published reports that Trump had given him authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan. Two months earlier, Trump gave Mattis similar authority over U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria.

Trump's actions are in marked contrast to those of former President Barack Obama, whose White House was accused by former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta of "micromanaging" the military.

Mattis sought to ease committee members' concerns that Trump is relinquishing his commander-in-chief's role on civilian control of the military.

He stressed that a new strategy for Afghanistan emphasizing a "regional approach" worked out with Pakistan and India and in concert with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would be presented for Trump's approval in mid-July.

The strategy will be "one that takes into account Afghanistan as part of South Asia," Mattis said, adding that "9/11 taught us the cost of not paying attention to this problem."

House and Senate members were generally supportive of Mattis' new authorities, citing Trump's inexperience. At the Senate hearing Wednesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Trump has "no military or political experience whatsoever."

In a crisis, "I'm hoping in those few minutes he picks up the phone and calls you," Durbin told Mattis.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, "I'm glad that Trump is smart enough to understand that you know more than he does and he is empowering you to make us safe."

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., voiced concerns about civilian control of the military and said Trump's delegation of authority to set troop levels to the military gave him pause. "Usually, these numbers have not been set by delegated authority."

In his testimony Thursday, Mattis said that the mission for U.S. troops in Afghanistan "remains the same -- train, advise and assist," but he indicated earlier in the week that the new strategy would emphasize airpower to ease pressure on the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.

His new strategy is a work in progress, Mattis said, and "does not at this time change the troop numbers in Afghanistan."

The authorized U.S. troop level in Afghanistan is about 8,400 but the SecDef said the current number of troops on the ground is a "little under 10,000," possibly because of overlap in troop rotations.

Mattis has expressed support for the long-standing request of Army Gen. John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for 3,000-5,000 more troops, but he said again Thursday that a decision awaits the presentation of a new strategy to Trump next month.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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