President Donald Trump has given Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis complete authority to determine troop levels in Afghanistan, a U.S. official told Reuters on Tuesday.
Mattis confirmed the report, but said it doesn’t mean there will be a change in U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan. He hasn’t decided yet how many more forces will be sent to the country, or when, but during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, he said there would be a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan by the middle of July. The United States and its allies “are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” Mattis said, adding that “we will correct this as soon as possible.”
This isn’t the first time that Trump has taken a hands-off approach to the U.S. military, and handed over a key part of his authority as commander-in-chief.
Trump previously gave Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Iraq and Syria in April.
Earlier that month, the White House wouldn’t confirm if Trump himself authorized the U.S. military to drop its largest non-nuclear bomb, the “Massive Ordnance Air Blast” also known as the “Mother of All Bombs,” in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. When asked, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump was “made aware” of the bombing.
Later in the day, when a reporter asked Trump directly if he authorized the bombing, Trump said, “What I do is I authorize my military. We have the greatest military in the world and they’ve done a job, as usual. We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing and, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.” He did not provide more details.
In March, Spicer used incredibly passive language when asked about the president’s role in sending an additional approximately 400 U.S. marines to Syria.
“Obviously the president was made aware of that,” said Spicer. “This is something that was done in consultation. He understands the regional issues that need to be addressed there.”
Trump has also eased combat rules and given the Pentagon greater authority over conducting airstrikes in Yemen and Somalia. On Sunday, the Pentagon reported that it carried out an airstrike against al-Shabaab in Somalia, the first public announcement of a strike under its new authority. A recent study from the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies found that the U.S. government has only acknowledged one-fifth of its lethal drone strikes, hasn’t provided enough information about specific strikes or civilian casualties, and hasn’t been transparent in its accountability.
The increased military freedom has worried some experts. Already, civilian casualties have increased under the Trump administration, and wider authority to the Pentagon isn’t guaranteed to make things better.
“Moving decision-making on small tactical issues from the White House to commanders in the field is positive, but commanders’ autonomy doesn’t help accomplish strategic goals,” Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the New York Times in April.
In May, Amnesty International said Trump giving the U.S. military “total authorization” threatens human rights around the world, as it could escalate conflicts and increase the number of civilian casualties.
In addition to leaving major military decisions to others, the Trump administration has left U.S. diplomatic tools in tatters. Trump’s proposed 2018 budget increases the funding for national defense by $52.8 billion, while cutting funding for the U.S. State Department and other international programs, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, by nearly a third. During a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Tillerson was asked about how the cuts would impact the State Department. He maintained that the “budget will never determine our ability to be effective,” but he also revealed that the State Department will likely not be fully staffed for the rest of 2017.
As the New York Times reported, many leadership positions at the State Department remain empty. Senators asked Tillerson how the department would be organized, so they could understand what to do with the budget.
From the Times report:
“Hopefully we will have some clarity around what that looks like by the end of this year,” Mr. Tillerson said of the department’s new structure. “Early next year we’ll begin implementation.”
“And when you say this year, you mean this fiscal year?” Mr. Corker asked hopefully, which would mean an announcement in September.
“This calendar year,” Mr. Tillerson answered — or three months later.
“Calendar year,” Mr. Corker repeated, his eyebrows rising.
In February, General John Nicholson, the commander of the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, called for “a few thousand” more troops in Afghanistan. About 9,800 U.S. troops are currently deployed to Afghanistan, the majority of which are working with other countries to train Afghan military, according to the New York Times.