The U.S. Defense Department's budget for the next fiscal year is already expected to total nearly $640 billion, but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he'll need even more money to boost American troop levels in Afghanistan.
"There would have to be a supplemental" to the budget approved by Congress and President Donald Trump to meet the long-standing request of Army Gen. John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for 3,000 to 5,000 more troops, Mattis said in testimony to a nighttime hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
The Force Management Level currently authorized for Afghanistan is 8,448 troops, but the actual number of service members currently in the country is "a little under 10,000," possibly because of overlap in troop rotations, Mattis said in response to questions from Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas.
"The commander on the ground [Nicholson], in light of the situation, has asked for more," Mattis said. "Those discussion are ongoing right now with the president, and myself and the chairman [Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford] advising him. The decision will be taken soon."
If the decision is to send more troops, Mattis said he eventually will have to come back to Congress with a supplemental budget request to pay for it.
O'Rourke asked whether the numbers included in the Trump administration's fiscal 2018 request of $64.6 billion for the so-called "war budget," or Overseas Contingency Operations, were sufficient to pay for more troops in Afghanistan.
"They're not right now, sir," Mattis replied.
"Will there be a supplemental request?" O'Rourke asked.
Mattis responded, "There would be; we would have to have a discussion to explain it."
The defense secretary also brushed aside a published report that the U.S. might be considering sending 50,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
"I give no credibility to a report about 50,000 troops," he said. "That's somebody's flight of fantasy."
Nicholson made the request for more troops in February as the Taliban gained territory against the increasingly hard-pressed Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, and as an offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, called "Islamic State-Khorasan Province" or "IS-K," stepped up terror attacks.
The situation on the ground has arguably deteriorated since then, despite the April 13 dropping of the 11-ton GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, nicknamed the "mother of all bombs, on a suspected IS-K cave and tunnel complex in the Achin district of eastern Nangarhar province.
Fighting continued in that same district last weekend, and three U.S. soldiers were killed in a suspected "green on blue" incident in which an Afghan army soldier turned his weapon on the Americans.
The U.S. soldiers were identified as Sgt. Eric M. Houck, 25, of Baltimore, Maryland; Sgt. William M. Bays, 29 of Barstow, California; and Cpl. Dillon C. Baldridge, 22 of Youngsville, North Carolina.
More than 150 U.S. and coalition troops have been killed in "green on blue" incidents in Afghanistan since 2010, according to the Pentagon.
In that same Achin district on April 27, two weeks after the MOAB was dropped, two U.S. soldiers were killed and a third wounded in a nighttime raid against IS-K positions.
The two troops killed were identified as Joshua P. Rodgers, 22, of Bloomington, Illinois, and Sgt. Cameron H. Thomas, 23, of Kettering, Ohio.
There have been six U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this year. The first was Army Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar, 37, of Edgewood, Maryland, who was killed April 8. All six of the U.S. deaths this year were in Nangarhar province.
There have been a total of 2,399 American troop deaths in Afghanistan and other countries in the region since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, according to statistics compiled by the website icasualties.org.
Terror attacks in Afghanistan this year have also increased in scope and frequency. On April 21, suspected Taliban fighters wearing Afghan army uniforms infiltrated an Afghan army base near northern Mazar-i-Sharif and killed an estimated 160 Afghan soldiers.
On May 31 in Kabul, a massive truck bomb went off in the heavily guarded area near the German embassy. The initial estimate was that 90 were killed, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said last week that the death toll had risen to at least 150 in the attack that could eventually prove to be the worst since the U.S. entered Afghanistan in 2001.
As he often does after deadly attacks, Ghani put part of the blame for the Kabul bombing on Pakistan. He accused Pakistan of carrying out "an undeclared war of aggression" on Afghanistan by maintaining sanctuaries for the Taliban inside Pakistan.
Ghani made the statement at the start of a conference on the possibility of resuming peace talks with the Taliban. A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, said talks were pointless while U.S. troops are in Afghanistan. "While Afghanistan is occupied, discussion and talking about peace will not have any outcome or meaning," he said.
At the House hearing Monday night, O'Rourke asked Mattis: "Do you think we need to do anything fundamentally different in Afghanistan" to begin to restore stability after nearly 16 years of war?
Mattis said he is working with the White House and the State Department on a new strategy.
"I think we've got to do things differently, sir, and it's got to be looked at as across-the-board" for a plan to change the dynamics with a "whole of government approach" that would not rely solely on military efforts.
"We have got to come up with a more regional strategy so what we're doing is connected with the geographic reality of where the enemy is fighting from" in sanctuaries in Pakistan, he said.
"However, most of the fighting will continue to be carried by the Afghan forces" if Trump signs off on sending more troops, Mattis said.
Other committee members cited the Trump administration's proposed 32 percent cut in funding for the State Department and its Agency for International Development in questioning whether the State Department would be able to partner with the military in a new strategy for Afghanistan.
Rep. Thomas Suozzi, D-N.Y., who was in Afghanistan in April, said he was briefed by the U.S. military there on a four-year plan for Afghanistan, but "I didn't see a similar plan with the State Department."
Mattis assured Suozzi that the military strategy is being worked in close concert with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He said, "Secretary Tillerson and I are tied on the hip on this" in a joint effort to "make sure we have a tandem approach to this."