After months of debate Barack Obama has approved expanded authorities that will allow U.S. troops to accompany and conduct airstrikes and offensive operations with Afghan forces when necessary, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced Friday. This according to Military.com. Officials said the decision was made as a result of the Taliban’s return to strength, especially in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, and Uruzgan.
Since Obama announced the end of combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, U.S. involvement has been limited to an advisory capacity, with active participation only when in defense of their own troops, the defense of the Afghanistan troops they were advising, or in a counter-terrorism role against al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, and in situations where there was as specific threat that justified a response. Officials said the decision comes in an effort to strike the Taliban and offer improved support to the Afghan forces when needed in critical operations. Now, under the expanded authorities, U.S. forces can accompany Afghan forces on missions, and carry out offensive strikes on the Taliban or other threats if such strikes would have a “strategic effect on the battlefield,” according to a senior defense official. The expanded authorities would also apply to the use of air support in offensive strikes. Officials stated that although U.S. forces will be accompanying conventional Afghan forces, they will not be on the front lines.
“The president made a decision to enable the commander there to have some additional authority to act proactively — that is to anticipate situations in which the Afghan security forces would benefit from our support… rather than be simply reactive,” Carter said Friday in Washington, D.C. According to another defense official, orders are currently being drafted to lay out the guidelines for the new authorities regarding rules of engagement and to what extent U.S. forces would be inserted to accompany the Afghan forces.
Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has been in the country three months as a replacement for former U.S. commander Gen. John Campbell. He has discussed his recommendations for actions the U.S. can take to further assist the Afghans with Defense Secretary Ash Carter. One of the main points of discussion is whether the U.S. should, as planned, reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan from 9,800 to 5,500 by the end of the year, or whether it is in fact necessary to increase the number. Campbell was in favor of maintaining the level as it stands till next year.
Despite the large losses of Afghan troops on the battlefield, U.S. officials are still optimistic given the resilience of the Afghan forces, further encouraged by the loss of the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan in May. Brigadier General Charles Cleveland said last week that Nicholson was sending his assessment of the ongoing security threat there and the needs of the Afghan military to U.S. Central Command and to the Pentagon, and was expected to brief senior military leaders soon afterward.
Experts have said that it’s difficult to predict how long it will take for Afghanistan to be able to stand alone against the Taliban given the country’s vast economic problems and fragile political system. The U.S. has spent billions in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan over the past ten years, and the renewed Taliban uprising is threatening to destroy the progress made.
[Photo via Shutterstock]