Exclusive: Obama approves broader role
for U.S. forces in Afghanistan
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[June 10, 2016]
By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack
Obama has approved giving the U.S. military greater ability 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
The senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of
anonymity, said the decision would also allow greater use of U.S.
air power, particularly close air support.
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 conflict, 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
A group of retired generals and senior diplomats urged Obama last
week to forgo those plans, warning they could undermine 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.
"This added flexibility ... is fully supported by the Afghan
government and will help the Afghans at an important moment for the
country," the official said.
AIDING AFGHAN OFFENSIVE
The decision is a departure from current U.S. rules of engagement in
Afghanistan, which impose limits on U.S. forces' ability to strike
For example, the U.S. military was previously allowed to take action
against the Taliban "in extremis" - moments when their assistance
was needed to prevent a significant Afghan military setback.
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President Barack Obama delivering a statement in the Roosevelt Room
at the White House in Washington October 15, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan
That definition, however, left the U.S. military postured to assist
them in more defensive instances. The new policy would allow U.S.
forces to accompany Afghans at key moments in their offensive
campaign against the Taliban.
"The U.S. forces will more proactively support Afghan conventional
forces," the official said.
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
Still, experts warn that its hard to predict when Afghanistan will
be able to stand on its own against the Taliban, not to mention the
country's enormous economic difficulties and fractious political
The U.S government’s top watchdog on Afghanistan told Reuters that
the United States had wasted billions of dollars in reconstruction
aid to Afghanistan over the past decade, and now a renewed Taliban
insurgency was threatening the gains that had been made.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Leslie Adler and Paul Tait)
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