President Barack Obama has approved giving the U.S. military broader authorities in Afghanistan to accompany and enable Afghan forces battling a resilient Taliban insurgency, in a move to assist them more proactively on the battlefield, a U.S. official told Reuters.
The senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the decision would also allow American forces to accompany conventional Afghan troops and possibly allow airstrikes in support of Afghan troops.
“The President has approved providing additional flexibility to our forces already deployed in Afghanistan to carry out our current strategy,” the senior Defense official said.
“These new, limited authorities are modifications of our ongoing Train, Advise, and Assist mission that we believe will allow us to better support the Afghan National Defense Security Forces, maintain our counterterrorism mission, and protect our forces.”
However, the official cautioned: “This is not a blanket order to target the Taliban.”
Obama’s decision again redefines America’s support role in Afghanistan’s grinding insurgency, more than a year after international forces wrapped up their combat mission and shifted the burden to Afghan troops.
It also comes ahead of Obama’s eagerly anticipated decision on whether to forge ahead with a scheduled reduction in the numbers of U.S. troops from about 9,800 currently to 5,500 by the start of 2017.
Most of the 9,800 U.S. military forces in Afghanistan are serving in a training mission known as “Resolute Support” that for the most part is conducted on large bases.
A group of retired generals and senior diplomats urged Obama last week to give up those plans, warning they could weaken the fight against the Afghan Taliban, whose leader was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan last month.
Under the new policy, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, will be able to decide when it is appropriate for American troops to accompany conventional Afghan forces into the field – something they have so far only been doing with Afghan special forces, the official said.
The expanded powers are only meant to be employed “in those select instances in which their engagement can enable strategic effects on the battlefield,” the official said.
That means that U.S. forces should not be expected to accompany Afghan soldiers on day-to-day missions.
The Taliban control or contest more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since they were ousted by a U.S.-backed intervention in late 2001, and U.S. officials have acknowledged the uneven performance of Afghan security forces.
Large portions of Afghanistan, including the provincial capital of northern Kunduz and multiple districts of southern Helmand province, have fallen, at times briefly, to the Taliban over the past year-and-a-half. Many other districts and provinces are also under varying degrees of Taliban control.
The new authorities that Obama has given the U.S. military could give it greater leeway in addressing the shortcomings of Afghan security forces.
Still, experts warn that it’s hard to predict when Afghanistan will be able to face the Taliban on its own, not to mention the country’s enormous economic difficulties and fractious political system.