President Trump authorizes Defense Secretary Mattis to set US troop levels in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON, June 13 (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump has given Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, a U.S. official told Reuters on Tuesday, opening the door for future troop increases requested by the U.S. commander.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said no immediate decision had been made about the troop levels, which are now set at about 8,400.

The Pentagon declined to comment.

The decision is similar to one announced in April that applied to U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Syria, and came as Mattis warned Congress the U.S.-backed Afghan forces were not beating the Taliban despite more than 15 years of war.

RELATED: James Mattis travels to Afghanistan

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James Mattis travels to Afghanistan
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis looks out over Kabul as he arrives via helicopter at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis is saluted by a member of his U.S. Army helicopter crew as he arrives at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis checks his watch as he arrives via helicopter at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
A U.S. soldier mans a gun at the back gate aboard the helicopter carrying U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis as he arrives via helicopter at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) and senior advisor Sally Donnelly (L) arrive via helicopter at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) gives senior advisor Sally Donnelly (L) a thumbs-up as they discuss their schedule upon arriving via helicopter at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (C) boards a helicopter to fly from Hamid Karzai International Airport to Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (3rd R) is greeted by U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major David Clark (L) and General Christopher Haas (2nd R) as he arrives at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (in black dress shoes) walks with U.S. Army leaders across a NATO logo as he arrives at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis arrives via helicopter at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (R) meets with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (L) and his delegation at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (C) is greeted by Presidential Palace staff as he arrives to meet with Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) is greeted by Presidential Palace staff as he arrives to meet with Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (center right) is greeted by Presidential Palace staff as he arrives to meet with Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (R) and U.S. Army General John Nicholson (L), commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, arrive to meet with an Afghan defense delegation at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (2nd R) meets with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (2nd L) and his delegation at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis (C) and U.S. Army General John Nicholson (2nd L), commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, meet with Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security Director Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai (R) and other members of the Afghan delegation at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan April 24, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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"We are not winning in Afghanistan right now," Mattis said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier on Tuesday. "And we will correct this as soon as possible."

Mattis said the Taliban were "surging" at the moment, something he said he intended to address.

A former U.S. official said such a decision might allow the White House to argue that it was not micromanaging as much as the administration of former President Barack Obama was sometimes accused of doing.

Critics say delegating too much authority to the military does not shield Trump from political responsibility during battlefield setbacks and could reduce the chances for diplomats to warn of potential blowback from military decisions.

It has been four months since Army General John Nicholson, who leads U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, said he needed "a few thousand" additional forces, some potentially drawn from U.S. allies.

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Current and former U.S. officials say discussions revolve around adding 3,000 to 5,000 troops. Those forces are expected to be largely comprised of trainers to support Afghan forces, as well as air crews.

Deliberations include giving more authority to forces on the ground and taking more aggressive action against Taliban fighters.

Some U.S. officials have questioned the benefit of sending more troops to Afghanistan because any politically palatable number would not be enough to turn the tide, much less create stability and security. To date, more than 2,300 Americans have been killed and more than 17,000 wounded since the war began in 2001.

Any increase of several thousand troops would leave American forces in Afghanistan well below their 2011 peak of more than 100,000 troops.

The Afghan government was assessed by the U.S. military to control or influence just 59.7 percent of Afghanistan's 407 districts as of Feb. 20, a nearly 11 percentage-point decrease from the same time in 2016, according to data released by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

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A truck bomb explosion in Kabul last month killed more than 150 people, making it the deadliest attack in the Afghan capital since the Taliban were ousted in 2001 by a NATO-led coalition after ruling the country for five years.

On Saturday, three U.S. soldiers were killed when an Afghan soldier opened fire on them in eastern Afghanistan.

RELATED: Where in the world is the US military

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U.S .troops are deployed in hotspots around the world, including places like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock/US Air Force

Here's a look at some of the most significant deployments for American soldiers.

In Afghanistan, approximately 9,800 US soldiers are taking part in Resolute Support, which aims to train, advise, and assist the Afghan security forces and institutions in their fight against the Taliban and other terrorist networks.

In Iraq, about 4,000 to 6,000 soldiers are taking part in Operation Inherent Resolve, which aims to eliminate the Islamic State. Only 5,262 US troops are authorized to be in Iraq, but the actual numbers have been larger for a while as commanders leverage what they call temporary — or "nonenduring" — assignments like the one involving the 82nd Airborne in Mosul.

In Syria, 500 U.S. special forces and 250 Rangers are working in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. The Pentagon is also mulling sending an additional 1,000 US service members to the war-torn country.

In Kuwait, about 15,000 soldiers are spread among Camp Arifjan, Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base, and Ali Al Salem Air Base. About 3,800 soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team also deployed there late last year.

In Poland, about 3,500 soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division's 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team are stationed as part of Atlantic Resolve, which seeks to halt Russian aggression. These soldiers will help train local forces and provide security, eventually fanning out to other countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary to do the same.

In Ukraine, approximately 250 Oklahoma National Guardsmen are training Ukrainian forces in support of Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine.

In Somalia, about 40 U.S. soldiers from the 101st Airborne division are assisting the central government in training its forces and fighting the terrorist group al-Shabab.

Photo Credit: Skye Gould/Business Insider

Of the U.S. Navy's seven fleets, three are deployed in or near potential hotspots around the world.

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Josue L. Escobosa/Released

The Navy's 6th Fleet is stationed around the Strait of Gibraltar; the 5th is by Saudi Arabia; and the 7th is near Japan and the Pacific Ocean.

 The USS Carney, Ross, Porter, and Donald Cook are part of the 6th Navy Fleet, which contains 17 ships and 12,638 sailors. 

The USS Bataan and George H.W. Bush are part of the 5th, which consists of 24 ships and 16,731 service members. The Bush is patroling the Persian Gulf, while the Bataan is south of Yemen. 

The USS Reagan, Bonhomme Richard, Carl Vinson, and Makin Island are part of the 7th, which consists of 53 ships and 37,935 sailors. 

Photo Credit: Skye Gould/Business Insider

U.S. Marines are deployed around the world to help counter the Islamic State. Some are also deployed in efforts to contain Russia and to provide security.

Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps

Here are some of the most important Marine deployments.

In Syria, approximately 400 Marines are taking part in Operation Inherent Resolve.

In Afghanistan, 300 Marines are taking part in Resolute Support.

In South Sudan, approximately 40 U.S. Marines are providing security to the U.S. Embassy. 

In Norway, about 300 Marines are stationed as part of a bilateral agreement between Oslo and Washington to undergo winter training and reinforce Norway's border with Russia.

Photo Credit: Skye Gould/Business Insider

While the U.S. Air Force is deployed in bases worldwide, the service most recently sent two F-35s each to Bulgaria and Estonia.

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force/Osakabe Yasuo

This is where the Air Force has a significant presence.

Two F-35s were recently deployed to Bulgaria for training and "reassuring allies and partners of U.S. dedication to the enduring peace and stability of the region." Another two F-35s recently deployed to Europe and will visit multiple NATO countries in support of European Reassurance Initiative.

Four hundred airmen from the 5th Bomb Wing recently deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

Twelve F-16 fighters are in South Korea to "help maintain a deterrent against threats to regional security and stability." Multiple B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers are also stationed there.

Photo Credit: Skye Gould/Business Insider

Here's a view from across the military. In total, about 69,300 troops are assigned to Pacific Command, with 41,990 in Central Command, 34,520 in European Command, and 9,150 assigned to Africa Command.

Though we've shown you some of the most significant deployments around the world, it's worth noting that these graphics are not all-inclusive. We've kept off most traditional bases and training exercises, for example.

Photo Credit: Skye Gould/Business Insider

Here is a chart of the significant U.S. military deployments worldwide.

There are some other rather significant troops deployed to support in other service members in hotspots.

Thousands of U.S. service members, mostly airmen, are deployed in Qatar, where the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base is located. 

In Jordan, 1,500 soldiers, a squadron of F-16s, a Patriot missile battery, and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems have been deployed because of the war in Syria. 

About 7,000 US military personnel, mostly sailors, are based in Bahrain, which is home to the 5th Navy Fleet. A large number of US airmen also operate out of the Shaykh Isa Air Base, where F-16s, F/A-18s, and P-3 surveillance aircraft are stationed.

Elements of the U.S. 379th Air Expeditionary Wing are based in Eskan Village Air Base in Saudi Arabia, where the 5th Navy Fleet also patrols. 

Photo Credit: Skye Gould/Business Insider

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The broader regional U.S. strategy for Afghanistan remains unclear. Mattis promised on Tuesday to brief lawmakers on a new war strategy by mid-July that is widely expected to call for thousands more U.S. troops.

Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Forces Committee, pressed Mattis on the deteriorating situation during the Tuesday hearing, saying the United States had an urgent need for "a change in strategy, and an increase in resources if we are to turn the situation around."

"We recognize the need for urgency," Mattis said. (Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali. Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and John Walcott.; Editing by Andrew Hay and Bill Trott)

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