WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump has given his Defence Secretary Jim Mattis the authority to determine troop levels in Afghanistan, the US media reported on Wednesday.

Mattis told a congressional hearing on Monday night that he favoured sending more troops to Afghanistan but indicated that the increase would be moderate. He rejected as “wild fantasy” a media report that the Pentagon may send up to 50,000 troops to the war-torn country.

At one stage, however, the United States had more than 120,000 troops in Afghanistan, which were gradually reduced to the present strength of less than 10,000.

The news that Trump has given Mr. Mattis the authority to decide how many troops to send to Afghanistan was leaked by “senior US officials” to a number major American media outlets, including The New York Times. US officials often leak such information to the media before a major decision to gauge public sentiments at home and the reaction of US allies and adversaries abroad.

At his congressional hearing, Mattis said that additional military deployments would be a part of the new US strategy for Afghanistan that the Trump administration is still working on. He said he would “very soon” send the new strategy to Trump and it will be announced publicly sometime next month after the president approves it.

Mattis also said that the new strategy would have a more regional approach and would look at the impact of India, Pakistan and Pakistan, Afghanistan relations on the Afghan war. Afghanistan’s relations with other neighbouring nations, including China and Russia, will also figure in in the new strategy.

The administration had earlier hinted at announcing the new Afghan policy by late May, after Trump returns from his visits to the Middle East and Europe. But the announcement has been delayed.

Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain also noticed this delay at the hearing. “We’re now six months into this administration,” he said. “We still haven’t got a strategy for Afghanistan. It makes it hard for us to support you when we don’t have a strategy.”

Mattis hinted that some troops might be sent even before the new policy is finalised, if the situation demanded. “There are actions being taken to make certain that we don’t pay a price for the delay,” he said.

Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2017