Obama Expands Military’s Role in Afghan War He Sought to End

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President Barack Obama and U.S. Major General Bradley A. Becker, commander of the military district of Washington, listen to the national anthem before placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns to honor Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 2016, in Arlington, Virginia.

Photographer: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
  • U.S. forces to have more authority to accompany Afghan troops
  • Taliban say the decision will be a ‘waste’ of money, lives

U.S. troops will deploy alongside conventional Afghan forces as President Barack Obama, in a sign that peace negotiations and nation-building in Afghanistan have foundered, broadens a mission he had long hoped would be over by year-end.

American forces will have an expanded mandate to target groups including the Taliban in Afghanistan, aiding their Afghan counterparts not only in training and advising but also accompanying them on the ground and in the air, an administration official said. The U.S. has had troops in Afghanistan since just after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“It is a realization that the policy that stressed on peace-making and political dialogues was premature and not framed according to ground realities,” Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France, said in an e-mail. “This is now Obama’s war, and part of his legacy will be determined by how he handles the end stage and what he leaves behind for the next administration.”

Drone Strike

Obama, who ran for his second term on a platform that included ending U.S. involvement in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, decided in October 2015 to delay a planned draw-down and maintain 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2016. The expanded U.S. role comes less than a month after a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. Obama said that action sent “a clear signal to the Taliban and others that we’re going to protect our people” because Mansour and the Taliban had been “specifically targeting U.S. personnel and troops inside of Afghanistan.”

Friday’s decision broadens the existing U.S. military mission in Afghanistan rather than authorizing a new mission, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. While the country is still a “dangerous place,” Obama’s successor will inherit a “far improved” situation in the country, Earnest said.

The move, which will allow troops to provide Afghan forces with “close-air” support against hostile targets, illustrates U.S. concern about the abilities of Afghan forces to hold their own in the counterterrorism fight on their soil. Obama is under pressure from the Afghan government and some U.S. military leaders to back down on his plans to reduce American forces there.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the broader powers will “help Afghans maintain control of the country."

No Direct Combat

Obama, speaking at a press conference in Hanoi on May 23, said the U.S. wasn’t returning to direct combat in Afghanistan.

“We are not reentering the day-to-day combat operations that are currently being conducted by Afghan security forces,” he said. “Our job is to help Afghanistan secure its own country, not to have our men and women in uniform engage in that fight for them.”

The U.S. had failed to make headway on peace talks with the Taliban since Mansour took control of the group last year, forcing Obama to alter plans for removing most American troops from Afghanistan by the end of his term. Mansour’s death leaves open the question of whether more moderate Taliban commanders will be able to reach a deal to end a conflict that has cost the U.S. almost $700 billion and killed more than 2,200 American troops.

The stepped-up U.S. role doesn’t change the underlying weakness of Afghan forces that aren’t capable of fighting insurgents and are mostly reassigned police officers, said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Delaying Choices

“You’re dealing with a force that was rushed into being after the president announced the departure,” he said.

Even the increased U.S. involvement will be too little to make a difference in Afghanistan’ deteriorating security situation, Cordesman said in an interview.

Obama’s action may delay tougher choices until his successor is in office.

“My suspicion is that either presidential candidate will want to disentangle themselves out of this mess as quickly as possible by just packing up and going home,” said Omar Hamid, head of Asia Pacific risk at IHS Inc. in London. “The perception of Afghanistan in Washington is that it’s yesterday’s war, I don’t think you’re going to find anyone in any mood to come in and say, ‘Right, I think we should stay on for another five years’ or whatever.”

‘We Welcome Decision’

The Afghan government welcomed the change, saying its forces need the help in rooting out Taliban insurgents.

“With no doubt, our Afghan forces indefinitely need air and ground support from our American ally, along with assistance on intelligence,” Shah Hussain Murtazawi, a deputy spokesman to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said by phone on Friday. “Afghanistan doesn’t support the reduction of U.S. troops in the country, and their broadened presence is helpful and necessary in combating terrorism.”

The Taliban said the U.S. change is futile. The U.S. is officially fighting al-Qaeda and Islamic State in its mission in Afghanistan.

“With the U.S.’s new decision to broaden their military role against us, they’ll only waste their money, and will suffer extremely with more deaths in the country,” Zabihullah Mujahed, the Taliban’s main spokesman, said by phone. “They couldn’t harm us with their modern weapons, military vehicles and more than 100,000 soldiers a few years ago, so the new announcement is pointless. It’s better for the U.S. to leave the country, us and the Afghan government alone. We remain resilient and will fight until all foreign forces leave the country.”

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