The military's major commitment of aircraft and ships to Puerto Rico hurricane relief has delayed the deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan, a top Pentagon official said Thursday.
"There has been a slight delay," and "it will take time to build up the force in Afghanistan," Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the Pentagon's Joint Staff Director, said at a news conference.
At the request of Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, with White House approval, has ordered the deployment of "more than 3,000" troops to join the 11,000 already on the ground in Afghanistan.
Mattis has declined to give a specific number on the troops to be deployed to Afghanistan, but senators from both sides of the aisle said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday -- where Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford testified -- that about 3,500 troops would be committed.
Neither Mattis nor Dunford argued with the 3,500 estimate.
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Mattis declined to say when the troops would begin to deploy, saying only that it will happen "in the coming months."
Dunford testified that the military's responses to Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey could have an impact on troop deployments worldwide into next year.
At the Pentagon news conference, McKenzie said troop deployments to Afghanistan will be "slightly delayed by ongoing relief efforts."
He did not give an estimate on how long the delay would last, but said there is "a finite number of transport aircraft the U.S. has. That will inevitably slow movement to other theaters."
However, "the orders are being assigned" for the eventual deployment, and "there will be minimal delay to the strategy," McKenzie said.
Not a 'Forever' War
The new strategy for Afghanistan came under pointed questioning at the SASC hearing Tuesday from Republicans and Democrats.
The senators said they had difficulty understanding how the addition of about 3,000 troops to bring the total to approximately 14,000 would have a significant impact on the course of the war when more than 100,000 on the ground in 2012 did not result in the Taliban's defeat.
Sen. John McCain, the committee chairman, said in his opening statement, "At the most basic level, we still do not know how the president's new strategy will better enable us to achieve our stated objectives.
"In short, at present, it remains unclear why we should be confident that this new strategy could turn the tide in Afghanistan or bring us meaningfully closer to success than its failed predecessors," he said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, told Mattis,"The best I can tell, this new strategy is just more of the same -- you've just removed the timetable.
"That's what bothers me," Warren said, adding that Mattis appeared to be saying the U.S. is "willing to continue to fight the Afghan war forever, and that just can't be right."
Mattis said Afghanistan is not a "forever" war, but acknowledged that U.S. troops could still be there 10 years from now. He said troops must remain to prevent Afghanistan from being used again as a safe haven to attack the U.S.
The SecDef also said the rules of engagement are being changed to allow more extensive use of airpower and to allow U.S. troops to be involved in what is essentially "combat duty" by moving closer to the front lines in smaller Afghan units to call in airstrikes.
'We're All In' on Puerto Rico Relief
At the Pentagon on Thursday, McKenzie said the Afghanistan delay must be measured against Mattis' order that "we're all in" on Puerto Rico relief.
"There's just going to be downstream effect when you make those decisions," he said, "but American citizens are involved in Puerto Rico and it's a very high priority for this department."
When asked about a potential cascading effect on global operations, chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said, "This is a building all about plans. We do what we have to do.
"We are prepared for all contingencies. It is not the first time we've had natural disasters and deployed forces. Again, it's a minor delay," but forces will still flow to Afghanistan, she said.
Air Force officials have acknowledged that Air Mobility Command has been stretched thin responding to three hurricanes in quick succession.
Well before the hurricane season, AMC commander Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II warned in March that airlift capacity had to be increased to meet the demands of the operational tempo.
"Just a few years ago, we had 112 C-5s. Today, we have 56," Everhart told congressional staffers during a demonstration day last month at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.