Washington: The Obama administration has granted American forces in Afghanistan new authorities to assist Afghan troops, a U.S. official said on Thursday. The move signals a return to broader military might against the Taliban and pulls the United States back deeper into the country’s ongoing war.
The new measures include authorizing U.S. troops, stationed in Afghanistan on a dual training and counterterrorism mission, to begin accompanying conventional local forces on the battlefield in a way that now occurs only with elite Afghan forces. That, in turn, could mean greater use of U.S. air power to support those American and Afghan forces as they do battle.
Both of those actions will occur only when military leaders judge it will have “strategic effect,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss decisions that have not yet been made public.
“This is not a blanket order to target the Taliban,” the official said. “The president’s decision allows our commanders on the ground to maximize the use and effectiveness of our troops supporting the Afghan forces in those select instances in which their engagement can enable strategic effects on the battlefield.”
President Obama’s decision to authorize the new measures is a reflection of the deteriorating security across Afghanistan, where local forces are struggling to contain a resurgent Taliban, along with cells of al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters, that have posed a formidable threat as foreign forces have withdrawn.
The changes come in response to recommendations from Army Gen. John W. “Mick” Nicholson Jr., who took command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in March, and has made requests through military leaders about measures designed to prevent security from worsening further.
Nicholson’s advice follows recommendations made by his predecessor, Gen. John Campbell who, before he stepped down this spring, urged the White House to allow more aggressive targeting of Taliban forces.
How widely commanders apply the “strategic effect” measure will determine the extent to which the authorities thrust the United States back into operations like those it conducted before Obama ended formal combat operations at the close of 2014.
“I think this is essentially a recognition that the current state of affairs on the battlefield is not tenable,” said Moeed Yusuf, associate vice president for Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “It is in a sense fulfilling a need, but I think the policy is too far gone to revamp it … I don’t think you’re going back to the old war.”
Following the end to combat operations, the U.S. force in Afghanistan, which now stands at about 9,800 service members, has operated under a two-part mission. One component, known as Freedom’s Sentinel, aims to hunt down small al-Qaeda units and, more recently, fighters loyal to the Islamic State. Advisers working under the other mission, Resolute Support, aim to help local forces, more powerful than they once were but still lacking in key intelligence, logistics and air capabilities, beat back militant threats.
Prior to the new authorities, U.S. commanders, in keeping with their support role, could only authorize air strikes in limited circumstances: to defend U.S. personnel, to protect Afghan forces in danger of being overrun, and to conduct counterterrorism operations. Sometimes strikes have taken place, for example, to protect U.S. Special Operations Forces operating in support of their elite Afghan counterparts.
It’s not clear what effect a small force in Afghanistan, even with new operational authorities, can have in the country’s vast and complex battlefield. In 2015, Taliban forces captured large swathes of Helmand Province, and later took over Kunduz, a major the northern city, before U.S. fire power helped push them out.
So far, 2016 has provided no sustained break, with heavy fighting in Helmand and a series of terrorist attacks in Kabul. Even after the United States conducted a strike that officials believe killed former Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in Pakistan, officials expect a punishing fighting season this summer.
The official said that the changes approved to date did not include revisions to troop withdrawal schedule. Under the current plan, Obama will halve the current force to around 5,500 by the time he steps down in Jan. 2017.
He said that the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, itself under pressure to improve security, had supported the expanded military action.