The Obama administration has authorized an expanded U.S. military response to insurgents in Afghanistan following the conclusion of U.S. and NATO combat operations in December, a U.S. official said Saturday.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the planning, said the White House had made a decision in recent weeks to provide the U.S. military with expanded powers for Afghanistan in 2015.
“It essentially allows for an expanded set of counterterrorism authorities than what had previously been envisioned — essentially giving the military status quo,” the official said.
The official said the order gave the military “what they believe they needed” to conduct the counterterrorism mission. “The threat of terrorism is not going to go away when the ISAF mission ends,” he said, referring to the International Security Assistance Force, the military command that has led the long U.S. and NATO fight against the Taliban and other militants in Afghanistan.
The decision, first reported by the New York Times, is a shift for the White House, which has long sought to curtail U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan on a set withdrawal timeline as part of efforts to bring the United States’ foreign wars to a close.
But the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan after 13 years of war comes as the Taliban continues to launch attacks on Afghan and Western targets. The renewed security crisis in Iraq three years after the U.S. withdrawal, meanwhile, has raised questions about the vulnerability of allied governments when U.S. forces depart.
In May, President Obama announced a decision to bring the number of U.S. troops to 9,800 by Jan. 1 in a major step toward ending the U.S. fight in Afghanistan. By the end of 2016, according to the White House plan, the only U.S. troops remaining would be attached to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Gen. John F. Campbell, who commands U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, will oversee the U.S. and NATO mission to train and support Afghan forces that begins on Jan. 1. Under the plan announced earlier this year, he also will command a U.S. counterterrorism mission focused on a small number of al-Qaeda militants remaining in Afghanistan and their hard-line allies.
A senior military official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the White House decision would authorize the U.S. military to not only protect U.S. and NATO forces against a threat from any militant group, but it would also empower them to provide direct air support to Afghan forces if they were ‘in extremis’ — directly threatened by Taliban or other militants — and if U.S. air resources were available to do so.
“What these authorities are not is a license for offensive combat operations against the Taliban just because we still have U.S. capabilities in the country,” the official said. “That is not the intent.”
Speaking with The Washington Post in a recent interview, Campbell said he believed that U.S. planes would be able to provide support to Afghan troops that were threatened by Taliban insurgents after this year. But Campbell downplayed the significance of U.S. air power for Afghan forces, saying that U.S. aircraft had dropped bombs in only 7 percent of missions in which they were providing air support for Afghans.
The authorities provided to the remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan are especially important given the shortcomings of Afghanistan’s military, which NATO nations have built from the ground up since 2001. While Afghan forces have taken over responsibility for securing their country, the lack of an effective air force remains one major weakness.
Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said the decision was proper given the ongoing hostilities in Afghanistan. While the Taliban is under pressure following years of U.S. and NATO operations, the group continues to try to reclaim territory. It also retains sanctuaries in remote areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“It would have been intolerable for the American commander . . . to keep his aircraft on the ground while an Afghan unit was overrun because he was not authorized to use it,” Neumann said.
“We have not ended the war,” he said. “We have ended our combat role in the war, which goes on.”
Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.