Mattis Urges Keeping 20,000 NATO Troops in Afghanistan

The general who heads the U.S. Central Command went beyond the Pentagon’s positions today on issues including how many troops to keep in Afghanistan, giving candid testimony to Congress as he prepares to step down.

Marine Corps General James Mattis, who is retiring this month, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he favors a larger U.S. and allied presence in Afghanistan after 2014 than the Defense Department is considering.

Mattis, 62, said his “recommendation is for 13,600 U.S. forces.” The North Atlantic Treaty Organization would probably add about 50 percent of the U.S. strength, for a total exceeding 20,000, Mattis said. That’s far more than the 8,000 to 12,000 U.S. and NATO troops that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta discussed with his European counterparts in Brussels last month. President Barack Obama has yet to announce the size of the residual force after most U.S. troops depart.

“If the Afghan security forces continue to mature and become capable, then we can do a smaller number,” Mattis told reporters after testifying. “We have a lot of reasons to believe that Afghan National Security Forces are improving all the time.”

Mattis endorsed a NATO proposal to help maintain an Afghan military force of 352,000 beyond 2016.

The U.S. and Afghanistan are negotiating a bilateral security agreement that may determine how many U.S. troops will remain after the bulk of the U.S. troops leave the country in 2014.

‘Mad Dog’

Mattis, nicknamed “Mad Dog” for his sometimes acerbic comments, is being forced to leave the Marine Corps earlier than planned, according to Tom Ricks, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, who first reported Mattis’s retirement in Foreign Policy magazine. The Pentagon has said Mattis wasn’t being pushed out.

The Central Command, based in Tampa, Florida, oversees U.S. military operations stretching from Egypt to Uzbekistan and is responsible for the war effort in Afghanistan.

Mattis also questioned progress in U.S. diplomatic efforts aimed at stopping Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. Asked by Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the committee’s top Republican, if diplomacy and economic sanctions were working to stop Iran, Mattis said, “No, sir.”

Later, Mattis said he was “paid to take a rather dim view of the Iranians, frankly.”

Buying Time

Although Iran is likely to use negotiations to buy time and has a “history of denial and deceit,” the Obama administration must continue negotiations because “they do not prevent us from doing other things at the same time” including beefing up the U.S. military presence in the region, Mattis told lawmakers.

Mattis also disagreed with Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told Congress last month that they backed arming rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Obama rejected that recommendation.

The Syrian situation “is so complex that I have to get some degree of confidence that the weapons that we would be arming them with are not going to people who are our enemies,” Mattis said. Asked if he had such confidence, Mattis replied, “I do not.”

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