A spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Friday pushed back against news reports that he's already approved sending 4,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
"Secretary Mattis has made no decisions on a troop increase for Afghanistan," Dana White, an assistant to Mattis and the chief Pentagon spokesperson, said in a statement.
White noted that Mattis in testimony to Congress through this week had repeatedly said that decisions on troop increases would await the presentation to President Donald Trump of a new strategy for Afghanistan that would be ready in mid-July.
The Associated Press on Thursday reported that Mattis as early as next week may announce that he supports deploying 4,000 more troops in response to the request of Army Gen. John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who had requested between 3,000 and 5,000 additional forces.
In her statement, White said that Trump had delegated authority to Mattis to set troop levels in Afghanistan, but any decision would have to await consultations with other government agencies, the Afghan government, NATO allies and other coalition members.
The U.S. currently has roughly 8,400 troops in Afghanistan (excluding those in country on a temporary basis), while NATO and coalition allies have a total of about 5,000 forces.
Mattis' quick denial through his spokesperson of the AP report attributed to a "Trump administration official" suggested disarray within the administration on the way forward in Afghanistan, where Mattis said earlier this week that the Taliban "had a good year last year."
In the course of testifying on the budget at four congressional hearings from Monday through Thursday, Mattis was challenged repeatedly on how the addition of a few thousand troops could turn around a steadily deteriorating situation in which the Taliban is resurgent, an offshoot of ISIS is stepping up terror attacks, al-Qaida maintains a presence, and widespread corruption in Kabul stifles reform.
At a hearing of the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., asked Mattis, "What are the likely prospects that sending more troops will make any more difference now than it has in the last 16 years?"
"It's a fair question," Mattis replied. In his prepared testimony and in response to questions, he said the U.S. has no choice but to continue a long-term commitment to Afghanistan to prevent another 9/11-type attack on the homeland.
"Thanks to the vigilance and skill of the U.S. military and our many allies and partners, horrors on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, have not been repeated on our shores," Mattis said. "However, the danger continues to evolve, and that danger requires a commitment to defeat terrorist organizations that threaten the United States, other nations and the people of Afghanistan."
In assessing the way forward, "This administration will not repeat the mistakes of the past," he said. "We cannot allow Afghanistan to once again become a launching point for attacks on our homeland or on our allies."
Mattis did not go into detail on what he meant by "mistakes," but said the new strategy he is drawing up in concert with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be firmly based on the situation on the ground, and not be guided by arbitrary timelines for withdrawals.
In sketching the outlines of the new strategy, Mattis said, "We will continue to work with our allies, and we will ask more of them."
He said, "Our core mission will remain the same -- to train, advise and assist Afghan forces," but he is looking for more "agility" on how U.S. troops are employed, possibly moving them down to lower levels in the Afghan command chain in their advisory roles.
The new strategy will also focus on increased airpower to hold off the Taliban and give the Afghan forces breathing space to train and regroup, Mattis said.
Nicholson began asking for a "few thousand" more U.S. troops in February. He described the situation in Afghanistan at the time as being at a "stalemate."
In March, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, Nicholson's boss as commander of U.S. Central Command, backed up Nicholson's request in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. John McCain, the committee chairman, asked Votel, "Are we developing a strategy to break the stalemate and is it going to require additional U.S. troops?"
Votel responded that "the answer to your question is 'yes,' we are developing a strategy and we are in discussions with the -- with the [defense] secretary and the department right now, both General Nicholson and I are -- are forming our best advice and recommendations to the secretary and we look forward to moving forward with that."
"I do believe it will involve additional forces to ensure that we can make the advise-and-assist mission more -- more effective," Votel said.
An another SASC hearing on Tuesday, McCain prodded Mattis on why it is taking so long to come up with the new strategy for 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."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.