President Barack Obama has granted US military commanders more freedom to strike Taliban targets in support of Afghan troops, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced on June 10.
The President has approved giving the US military greater ability to accompany and enable Afghan forces battling a resilient Taliban insurgency, 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 President’s decision redefines again America’s support role, more than a year after international forces wrapped up their combat mission and shifted the burden to Afghan troops. There are currently 9,800 US servicemen across Afghanistan. Under the current plan, Obama will halve the current force to about 5,500 by the time he steps down in January. The drawdown could be slowed within that time frame to keep more troops in the country for as long as possible, but it’s not clear if such a decision has been made.
The new measures approved by Obama permit military leaders to send US 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 US air power for offensive missions against the Taliban. General John Nicholson, the US commander in Afghanistan, will decide when American troops should accompany conventional Afghan forces into the battle. A US official said, the new plan allows mainly for «close air support» strikes to ensure the safety of US and Afghan forces by hitting Taliban positions.
But those airstrikes may also require US military «air controller» personnel on the ground to pick out targets and relay details to pilots overhead. The new rules could also open the door for more US airstrikes and ground action against the Taliban to ensure US and Afghan forces are protected, the official indicated.
The decision is a departure from current US rules of engagement in Afghanistan. Previously, commanders overseeing the dual training and counterterrorism mission were able to authorize air strikes only in limited circumstances: to defend US personnel, to protect Afghan forces facing serious danger, and to conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. It had been allowed to take action against the Taliban only «in extremis» to prevent a significant Afghan military setback.
The President’s decision 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. The Taliban formations control or contest more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since they were ousted by a US-backed intervention in late 2001, and US officials have acknowledged the uneven performance of Afghan security forces.
Large portions of Afghanistan, including the provincial capital of northern Kunduz and multiple districts of southern Helmand province, have fallen, at times briefly, to the Taliban over the past year-and-a-half. Many other districts and provinces are also under varying degrees of Taliban control. Even after last month’s US drone strike that killed Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in Pakistan, US and Afghan officials are bracing for a fierce fighting season this summer. The Afghan government’s attempts to draw Taliban leaders into a political process have so far been unsuccessful.
The announcement did reveal that the Obama administration recognized the war was going badly and the US needed to do more to prop up its Afghan allies. The war is boring to most Americans – not to say confusing and often depressing.
The legacy in Afghanistan, like President Obama’s foreign policy record as a whole, is troubled at best. Since 2009, the President deployed more troops than needed for a narrow counterterrorism mission, but not enough for a broader counterinsurgency campaign. He initially increased reconstruction to make more effective the Afghan governance, but then second-guessed himself and subsequently reduced civilian aid every year thereafter. Obama insisted on the public issuance of a withdrawal deadline for US troops, undermining his own surge – which eventually became so obvious that he finally reversed himself. In May 2014 President Obama announced the final pullout from Afghanistan till the end of 2016. A month after the Islamic State seized Mosul and reminded the world of the dangers of failed states and jihadi groups who find safe haven in them. Within months, the United States was essentially back at war in Iraq – and it was easy to draw the obvious lesson for the war in Afghanistan. In October 2015, Obama halted the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, announcing that the United States will keep thousands of troops in the country through the end of his term in 2017 and indefinitely prolonging the American role in a war that has already lasted 14 years. Now he has come up with new changes of the policy in an attempt to rectify the situation going from bad to worse. The stay-behind force of 9,800 troops is necessary to prevent the Taliban’s further advances, but it cannot undo six years of uncertainty and second-guessing, and the number of troops is almost certainly too few for the mission they have been given. President Obama spent nearly his entire presidency talking about withdrawing from Afghanistan. Since December 2009, all of his major presidential addresses on Afghanistan have been about withdrawing troops. Obama has exuded uncertain wartime leadership.
«I strongly suspect that the Afghan Army is crumbling. After all, the war is going poorly, and Taliban power and influence are on the upswing, so everyone knows that the Kabul regime's days are numbered», said Daniel Lazare, a political analyst and the author of The Velvet Coup. «It’s just another half-hearted measure aimed at ratcheting up the pressure and making it look the US military is getting somewhere, when it's not. The long-term effect will be nil,» he summed up.
The war in Afghanistan and its aftermath are likely to have far-reaching consequences for the United States and the world. The US «nation building» in Afghanistan and Iraq has resulted in omnipresent corruption and inefficient governance. The project of liberal order-building has taken another hit because of Obama’s poor wartime leadership in these countries. Ongoing instability in Afghanistan risks spilling over into Pakistan, a highly dangerous scenario. The war has inflicted irreparable damage on US-Pakistani relations. In Afghanistan, like in Iraq and elsewhere, Washington got entangled in drawn-out conflicts with no end in sight. The US has failed to understand the main thing – by intervening it destroys the existing order. And the United States has always failed to create an alternate one anywhere, be it Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. Thus, the US is blamed for the consequences and rightly so. Without a stable and legitimate political order there will be no end to political violence. Competent, functioning institutions are the precondition for any sort of stability. Now the US President has to re-engage in both Iraq and Afghanistan, handing off both conflicts to his successor, unfinished and uncertain. This is the result of Washington’s failed Middle East policy.