“While the American forces would not be in an offensive role per say, if the Afghan forces are conducting offensive operations, we can support them,” said Nicholson, who commands the U.S.-led coalition. “Previously, we would support them primarily when they were on a defensive role, so as a commander, working closely with my Afghan comrades, this is a big difference.
“It enables them to retain the initiative against the enemy … whereas before, we were preventing defeat, now we are able to help them gain and retain the initiative.”
On Wednesday, Obama announced he was shelving plans to reduce U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan from the existing 9,900 down to 5,500 by January. Instead, Obama said 8,400 troops will remain here into 2017, leaving it up his successor to tweak troop levels further.
But the troop numbers tell just part of the unfolding effort here to ramp up U.S. military involvement in the nearly 15-year war.
As part of the broader reset of Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, he also expanded the circumstances in which commanders can take order airstrikes against Taliban militants.
Previously, those strikes were supposed to be generally confined to instances where the Taliban posed a direct threat to coalition or Afghan forces or when Afghan forces faced “a strategic defeat” on the battlefield, Nicholson said. Now, however, the U.S. military can also help Afghan forces achieve a “strategic effect.”
“I can help the Afghans keep the pressure on the enemy, even though a defeat was not imminent,” Nicholson said. “Whereas, before, where helping them defend a city would be important, under ‘strategic effects’, I can help them keep the pressure on the enemy who are no longer a threat.”
How that new authority plays out on the battlefield continues to be refined, Nicholson said. But Nicholson said the coalition is already employing the new authority to assist Afghan forces engaged in purely offensive action.
Last year, after Obama withdrew most American troops from Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents briefly overran a major city in northern Afghanistan and dozens of rural districts in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
The Taliban offensive battered Afghan security forces. A force that includes about 320,000 soldiers and police officers suffered nearly 20,000 causalities last year, Nicholson said.
Based on preliminary assessments, Nicholson said, Afghan forces are performing better this year because they have become more offensive.
In April, he noted, Afghan forces repelled a second Taliban attack on the northern city of Kunduz. Since then, Afghan Special Operations troops have carried out a number of offensive strikes against the Taliban to keep them at bay.
That offensive strategy is now shifting to southern Afghanistan, Nicholson said. In recent weeks, the U.S.-led coalition has assisted Afghan forces working to prevent major Taliban attacks attacks on highways or population centers in Helmand, Kandahar and Urozgan provinces.
Obama’s decision “enables us to plan in advance for subsequent phases of the Afghan campaign plan, and where (Afghan forces) might use these authorities going forward,” Nicholson said.