Defense Secretary James Mattis admits US 'not winning in Afghanistan'

Key Points
  • Sen. John McCain blasts Trump administration for failing to come up with a new strategy on Afghanistan conflict.
  • Defense secretary said Congress should have new strategy by mid-July.
  • Mattis said winning strategy for Afghanistan will mean "change in our approach" and "era of frequent skirmishing."
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (C) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, Jr., (L), testify during a US House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Fiscal Year 2018 budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 12, 2017.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

After about 16 years of the fighting in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary James Mattis testified Tuesday that the situation was not going well but he said a new strategy was being developed and would be available to Congress by mid-July.

"We're not winning in Afghanistan right now and we will correct this as soon as possible," said Mattis.

President Donald Trump is considering whether to send more troops to Afghanistan. There are presently just under 10,000 U.S. service members in the Asian nation.

The defense secretary's remarks Tuesday to the Senate Armed Services Committee followed criticism from the panel's chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), who blasted the Trump administration for not having a new strategy on how to deal with the worsening security situation in Afghanistan.

"We're now six months into this administration and still haven't got a strategy for Afghanistan," said McCain. "We know what the strategy was for the last eight years: don't lose. That hasn't worked."

Mattis, a retired four-star general, responded that the new strategy was being put together at this time and added there will be actions also "taken to make certain that we don't pay a price for the delay. We recognize the need for urgency, and your criticism is fair."

At the same time, McCain said the U.S. just "can't keep going like this" without having a workable strategy on Afghanistan. "There are problems within this administration. I was confident that within the first 30 to 60 days we would have a strategy from which to start working."

McCain told the defense secretary that it's not lawmakers' job to develop the Afghanistan strategy. "It's yours," he said.

The Republican lawmaker also noted that three American soldiers were killed over the weekend due to new violence in Afghanistan. The deaths were blamed on an Afghan soldier opening fire on the U.S. service members.

More than 2,300 Americans have died during the 16-year conflict in Afghanistan and more than 20,000 have been wounded. NATO nations such as Britain also have lost troops during the conflict.

"Let's not ask these families to sacrifice any further without a strategy," McCain said.

The increased violence in Afghanistan also includes a huge blast in the capital of Kabul last month that claimed the lives of more than 150 people.

There have been bipartisan efforts this year in the House to bar new funding for Afghanistan and to open a policy debate in Congress whether to withdraw U.S. troops. Critics of the war effort say that the U.S. has already spent more than $800 billion fighting in Afghanistan since 2001 and that the security situation has continued to worsen.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it would be "a massive mistake" to pull out entirely from Afghanistan and "would affect the security of Americans." He said the U.S. might want to consider a "follow-on force that is not involved in combat," similar to what the U.S. has in Europe and South Korea.

Mattis agreed it would be wrong to "walk away" from Afghanistan.

"We've already seen what can come out of these ungoverned spaces. The problems that originate there do not stay there. They come out and threaten all of us; they threaten the world order; they threaten our economy; they threaten our very country."

The defense secretary also was asked what winning looked like in Afghanistan.

"The Afghan government, with international help, will be able to handle the violence [and] drive it down to a level local security forces can handle it," said Mattis. "With our allies, it would probably require a residual force doing training and maintaining the high-end capability so that the threats — should they mature — we can take them down."

Mattis added that this will mean "an era of frequent skirmishing and will require a change in our approach from the last several years, if we're able to get it to that position."

The former general also insisted that the majority of the Afghan people still want U.S. troops in their country for security. He said the reason why the Taliban and other hostile militants in the country use bombs for terror purposes "is because they cannot win at the ballot box."