President Obama has granted military commanders new powers to assist Afghan troops combat the Taliban, U.S. officials said, in a move that pulls the United States farther away from the president’s goal of ending the long Afghanistan conflict before he leaves office.
The new measures approved by Obama late last month will permit military leaders to send U.S. troops on battlefield missions with conventional Afghan forces, broadening an activity that now occurs only with elite local troops, and will expand the use of U.S. air power for offensive missions against the Taliban.
Officials said they will only be approved in limited circumstances when they are expected to have “strategic effect.”
“This added flexibility is fully supported by the Afghan government, and will help the Afghans at an important moment for the country,” said a senior administration official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss decisions that have not been made public.
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, as well as al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters, which pose formidable threats after the departure of most foreign forces.
The changes come in response to a request from Army Gen. John W. “Mick” Nicholson Jr., who took command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in March. Nicholson’s predecessor, Gen. John F. Campbell, urged the White House to allow more aggressive targeting of Taliban forces before he stepped down this spring.
Nicholson has not yet submitted a formal assessment expected to follow his initial months as commander there, officials said, but had separately asked for the new authorities in response to battlefield conditions across the country.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, speaking at a conference on Friday, said the steps would provide Nicholson “some additional authority to act proactively” to help local forces. “It’s a good use of the combat power we have there,” he said.
Officials said that the new steps, whose details must now be fleshed out by military officials in Afghanistan, could, for example, allow Nicholson to send out U.S. personnel to call in air strikes with conventional forces when the Afghan government is conducting a specific offensive against enemy forces.
“This is not a blanket order to target the Taliban,” another official said.
James F. Dobbins, who was Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2014, said the new authorities were an acknowledgment that the administration’s earlier decision to limit the U.S. fight there to al-Qaeda hadn’t succeeded.
“It was a formula designed largely for its presentational appeal domestically, and it never made much sense strategically,” he said. “So I’m pleased they’ve reverted to a more normal approach: if [the Taliban] is going to continue to be at war with us, we’re going to be at war with them.”
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.
It’s not clear what impact the relatively small U.S. force in Afghanistan, even with new operational authorities, can have on the country’s vast and complex battlefield. There are currently 9,800 U.S. servicemembers across Afghanistan. Local forces are hoping to rebound this year from a punishing 2015, when the Taliban captured large swaths of Helmand Province and temporarily held Kunduz, a major northern city.
But even after last month’s U.S. drone strike that killed Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in Pakistan, U.S. and Afghan officials are bracing for a fierce fighting season this summer.
Prior to the new authorities, commanders overseeing the dual training and counterterrorism mission were able to authorize air strikes only in limited circumstances: to defend U.S. personnel; to protect Afghan forces facing serious danger; and to conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda or the Islamic State.
Moeed Yusuf, associate vice president for Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the move sent a positive signal but would have limited effect. “It is in a sense fulfilling a need, but I think the policy is too far gone to revamp it,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going back to the old war.”
Mohammad Haroon Chakhansuri, a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said there has been a growing realization in Kabul that tougher action needed to be taken against militant groups that refuse to engage in dialogue. The Afghan government’s attempts to draw Taliban leaders into a political process have so far been unsuccessful.
“The groups who did not embrace continued calls for peace made by President Ghani, (have) proven that their behavior is the same as other terrorist groups, and therefore irreconcilable,” Chakhansuri said. “They need to be dealt with militarily.”
U.S. officials said the measures recently approved by Obama did not include revisions to the president’s troop withdrawal schedule. Under the current plan, Obama will halve the current force to about 5,500 by the time he steps down in January.
Officials say they are unsure whether Obama and his most senior advisers will support further changes to the withdrawal plan he announced to great fanfare in 2014. While Obama has built his foreign police around ending the wars launched by George W. Bush, the rise of the Islamic State has prevented him from doing so in Iraq. The continued tenacity of the Taliban has stood in his way in Afghanistan.
The senior administration official said that Obama “has remained open to recommendations from his military commanders and members of his national security team.”
Sending American advisers out more widely will be a boon for conventional Afghan army forces, whose skills and equipment don’t compare to elite commando units that have been closely trained by the United States.
In their current training mission, U.S. advisers train regular army units only down to the corps level. As a result, those soldiers who form the backbone of the Afghan military have been timid and disorganized, which U.S. officials blamed for such embarrassing lapses as the fall of Kunduz last year.
Tim Craig, in Kabul, and Dan Lamothe, in Washington, contributed to this report.
This story was originally published Thursday, June 9, and updated multiple times.