US President Barrack Obama has quietly expanded the Pentagon’s role in Afghanistan from previously-set guidelines that were to limit US troop involvement in the war-wrecked country starting this year, the New York Times reported.
According to the newspaper, Obama signed classified orders for US forces to continue targeting Taliban in Afghanistan for at least another year.
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The broadened plan also allows the use of American jets, bombers and drones to back Afghan troops on combat missions, the New York Times‘ report said, citing several unnamed administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision.
The report, which Al Jazeera was unable to immediately verify, did not identify how this would affect the number of US troops deployed on the ground.
The new guidelines go against Obama’s comments in May, in which he said US military would have no combat role in Afghanistan next year, and that the task of 9,800 remaining in the country would only be training local forces and hunting the “remnants of al-Qaeda”.
Obama’s new set of orders followed what the newspaper described as a “lengthy and heated debate” between “two often-competing imperatives,” one being Obama’s previous promise to end the war in Afghanistan, the other the Pentagon’s demand to fulfill their remaining missions there.
The changes were made against the backdrop of Iraqi troops’ failure earlier this year to stand against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the newspaper said.
The Times reported that the decision was met with objection from some of Obama’s top civilian aides who argued for a “narrow counter-terrorism mission against al-Qaeda,” to avoid more American lives be put at risk next year in any operations against the Taliban.
US Military role
While the nature of US involvement in Afghanistan after this year has been under debate for years, two key factors, including Iraqi forces’ weak performance against ISIL, have tilted the balance in recent months in favour of what seems to be an extension.
The other factor was the arrival of Ashraf Ghani to Afghanistan’s helm. The new president has been more accepting of an expansive American military expansion in his country than his predecessor, Hamid Karazai.
Reuters news agency said a senior administration official said the US combat mission in Afghanistan would be over by year-end, as Obama had announced in May.
“Safety of our personnel is the president’s first priority and our armed forces will continue to engage in operations in self-defence and in support of Afghan security forces,” the official said, according to Reuters.
“While we will no longer target belligerents solely because they are members of the Taliban, to the extent that Taliban members directly threaten the United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan or provide direct support to al-Qaeda, we will take appropriate measures to keep Americans safe,” he added.