The Obama administration has granted American forces in Afghanistan new authorities to assist Afghan troops, a U.S. official said, signaling a return to broader military action against the Taliban and pulling the United States back into deeper involvement in the country’s ongoing war.
The new authorities 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 only occurs 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.
But both of those actions will occur only when military leaders judge they will have “strategic effect,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity 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 Barack Obama’s decision to authorize the new measures is seen as a reflection of the deteriorating security in Afghanistan, where local forces are struggling to contain a resurgent Taliban, along with al-Qaida and Islamic State cells, that have proved a formidable force as foreign forces have withdrawn.
The changes come at the recommendation of U.S. Army Gen. John Nicholson, who took command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in March and has made recommendations to his military leaders about the best way to stop security from worsening further.
Gen. Nicholson’s request follows recommendations made by his predecessor, Gen. John Campbell, before Gen. Campbell stepped down that urged the White House to allow targeting Taliban forces more aggressively.
How widely commanders apply the “strategic effect” measure will determine the extent to which the authorities thrust the U.S. back into operations like those it conducted before Mr. Obama ended formal combat operations at the close of 2014. Since then, U.S. forces have been relegated to a bifurcated mission. One component, known as Freedom Sentinel, involves rooting out the remnants of al-Qaida and the recently established IS affiliate, while the other, called Resolute Support, is meant to advise and assist Afghan forces.
Strikes against the Taliban were largely halted when the U.S.-led coalition’s combat role ended. Limited strikes have been allowed in cases of self-defense or when Afghan forces were in danger of being overrun.
Prior to the new authorities, U.S. officials also could only authorize airstrikes to conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and IS. U.S. strikes have taken place, for example, to protect U.S. Special Operations Forces operating in support of their elite Afghan counterparts.
The expansion of the U.S. mission was “fully supported” by the Afghan government, itself under pressure to improve security.
U.S. officials have insisted they are encouraged by the Afghan forces’ resilience, despite their high rate of battlefield casualties. And they point to the Taliban’s loss of its leader, Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in late May in Pakistan.
Associated Press contributed.