WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed Wednesday that U.S. President Donald Trump gave him authority to set troop numbers in Afghanistan but said new levels have not been decided.
"At noon yesterday, President Trump delegated to me the authority to manage troop numbers in Afghanistan," Mattis said at a Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on the 2018 Pentagon budget.
U.S. troop levels would not return to the 100,000-plus deployed troops seen at the height of the Afghanistan War, Mattis said. He would not commit to a range but said he would discuss it with lawmakers "within weeks, not months."
Mattis said at a previous hearing the decision on U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan is due in mid-July.
Mattis' confirmation of news broke Tuesday was met in the hearing with a welcome from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who suggested it was an improvement over U.S. President Barack Obama's micromanaging of the nation's conflicts and with firm questions from key Democrats who have been wary of Trump's foreign policy.
The subcommittee's ranking member, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., asked Mattis what difference would be made by spending more American lives and billions of dollars.
Mattis defended the U.S. sacrifice in Afghanistan as preventing enemies from launching external attacks and said the new approach would bring more diplomatic, intelligence and, crucially, air support.
Past U.S. restrictions on the nation's air support was misguided, he said. "That meant in the mountain country, these [Afghan] troops were often at a disadvantage, so we change the way we fight; we change the regional construct; and we change our approach to the way we deal with this [Afghan] government," Mattis said.
Mattis told Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, who also serves on the Armed Services Committee, he'd received the authority over troop levels in talks with Trump on the strategy — which would include the State Department and diplomatic efforts.
"It's not as if I've been given some carte blanche to draw up a number that's out of step with the strategy," Mattis said, adding that he is in frequent communication with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
When Reed pressed Mattis on whether Trump would be out of the loop on crucial decisions, Mattis sought to assure him that Trump is kept well informed by his national security team.
"I don't keep any secrets from the president, senator," Mattis said. "He is keenly interested, not in all the tactical details, but getting strategy right and knowing enough of the tactical details that he's informed. He's an active participant."
Graham, at the hearing, said he was "really pleased" that Trump is empowering Mattis. He disparaged Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
"What a novel idea for the commander-in-chief to turn to his commanders and say, what do you need to win, Graham said, adding: "Obama was a pretty lousy general."
Leo Shane III, in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.