Mattis, Tillerson won’t say how many more troops will head to Afghanistan

The defense secretary said he is still determining size of troop increase.

ByABC News
August 22, 2017, 5:38 PM

— -- Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both declined to say how many more troops will be deployed in Afghanistan after President Trump's announcement Monday night of his decision to continue the long-running U.S. military engagement there.

"I'd prefer not to go into those numbers right now," Mattis said at a press conference in Baghdad, adding, "There is a number that I'm authorized to go up to."

Mattis said he and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will first put together a plan before announcing the number of additional forces. Once that plan is public, "there will be visibility to troop levels," Tillerson said at a State Department press briefing.

But those numbers will be dictated by conditions on the ground, both men said, and not on political timelines.

"We've obviously been discussing this option for some time," Mattis told reporters. "I'll look at the number we have on the ground, reorganize those on the ground to align with the new strategy and bring whatever gap fillers I need."

Tillerson defended the opacity as an important tactic, arguing that the U.S. needs to be "as cagey and tactical" as the Taliban and other enemy groups. "We have not been fighting that way," he added.

In June, Trump gave Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan. Mattis reportedly favors sending in as many as 4,000 additional U.S. forces to push back against gains made by the Taliban and ISIS.

But Mattis suggested Tuesday that he is not locked into a particular number and that the size of the troop increase will be determined based on the plan presented by Dunford.

"It may or may not be the number that's bandied about," Mattis said.

He said in a statement Monday night that he will consult with the NATO secretary-general and directly with U.S. allies "several of which have also committed to increasing their troop numbers."

Trump on Monday said that the U.S. will forego a timetable for its military operations in Afghanistan and instead let "conditions on the ground" guide U.S. tactics.

Dunford called Trump's strategy "a new approach to Afghanistan and the region."

"Our Afghan partners know that our commitment is strong and enduring," Dunford said in a statement. "Our future presence will be based on conditions and not arbitrary timelines. This new strategy means the Taliban cannot win militarily. Now is the time to renounce violence and reconcile. A peaceful, stable Afghanistan is victory for the Afghan people and the goal of the coalition."

Part of that peaceful, stable Afghanistan will include elements of the Taliban, Tillerson noted. He made clear Tuesday that negotiations with the Islamist fundamentalist group were key to the new strategy.

"We believe -- we already know -- there are certain moderate elements of the Taliban who we think are going to be ready and want to help develop a way forward," he said, adding later that the U.S. no longer believes Afghanistan needs to have a democratic government, as long as it meets America’s security needs.

"Afghanistan and the Taliban representatives need to sit down and sort this out. It’s not for the U.S. to tell them it must be this particular model, it must be under these conditions," he said. Although previous administrations have tried to push democracy in other countries, he said, "In a lot of places, it doesn’t work."

The Afghanistan conflict is America's longest war, lasting close to 16 years so far and costing more than 2,000 American lives. An estimated 8,400 U.S. troops are serving in Afghanistan in an advisory capacity or in counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and ISIS-Khorasan, the ISIS affiliate in the country.

Trump said in his speech on Monday that his "original instinct" was to pull troops out of Afghanistan but that, after taking office and consulting with military leaders, he changed his views.

He warned Monday against a hasty withdrawal that would allow terrorists safe haven, and he criticized the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, completed in 2011, which Trump said led to the rise of ISIS. He also chastised Pakistan for harboring terrorist groups, saying the country has "much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan."

That's a line Tillerson reiterated as well, warning that sanctions against Pakistani officials, revoking Pakistan’s major non-NATO ally status, and even airstrikes in Pakistani territory without their approval are all on the table for the Trump administration.

"It is in Pakistan’s interests to take those actions," and if not, "We're going to attack terrorists wherever they live and we have put people on notice that if you are harboring and providing safe haven to terrorists, be warned."

The nation's top diplomat also issued a warning to Russia, which has reportedly been arming the Taliban in recent months. Tillerson called the action a "violation of international norms" and "UN Security Council norms," but it's unclear what the administration plans to do about it, if anything. President Trump made no mention of Russia -- or Iran, which has also supported the Taliban -- in his address.

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