Washington: President Barack Obama has ordered the US military to tackle the resurgent Taliban more directly — in tandem with Afghan allies, officials said Friday, ratcheting up a 15-year conflict he had vowed to end.
US forces have been in an advisory role in Afghanistan since the start of 2015 and were only authorized to hit Taliban targets for defensive reasons, or to protect Afghan troops.
The changes mean US troops can now work more closely with local fighters in striking the Taliban. “This is using the forces we have … in a better way, basically, as we go through this fighting season, rather than being simply reactive,” Pentagon chief Ashton Carter said.
“This makes good sense. It’s a good use of the combat power that we have there.” A senior administration official told AFP that US forces will more proactively support Afghans, and outlined plans to provide more close air support and accompany Afghan forces on the battlefield.
But “this does not mean a blanket order to target the Taliban,” the official cautioned. Obama was elected in 2008, promising to end one of America’s longest and most grueling wars.
The first US troops arrived in Afghanistan 15 years ago, after the Taliban government refused to turn over Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and more than 2,000 US personnel have died in the ensuing war. Afghan security forces last year took the lead in ensuring security across the country, but suffered a devastating string of setbacks at the hands of the Taliban.
Some 9,800 US troops remain in Afghanistan in an advisory capacity, down from a peak of around 100,000 in March 2011. That number is set to drop to just 5,500 by the year’s end. Currently, US forces are mainly confined to ministries or bases. Only special forces assist their Afghan counterparts on the battlefield.
A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the changes mean US troops can now embed with all Afghan troop units, not just their special forces. Still, he said, US troops won’t be fighting on the front lines against the Taliban, and will stay in an advisory role.
“Our mission is the same,” Carter said. “Which is to help the Afghans maintain control of the country and to avoid having a counter-terrorism challenge once again from Afghanistan.”