US President Barack Obama has ordered the US military to tackle the resurgent Taliban more directly — in tandem with Afghan allies, officials said on Friday, ratcheting up a 15-year conflict he had vowed to end.
US forces have been in an advisory role in Afghanistan since the start of last year and were only authorized to hit Taliban targets for defensive reasons, or to protect Afghan troops.
The changes mean US troops can now work more closely with local fighters in targeting the Taliban.
“US forces will more proactively support Afghan conventional forces,” a senior administration official said.
The official, who asked not to be named, spoke of plans to provide more close air support and to accompany Afghan forces on the battlefield.
However, “this does not mean a blanket order to target the Taliban,” the official added.
Obama was elected in 2008, promising to end one of the US’ longest and most grueling wars.
The first US troops arrived in Afghanistan 15 years ago, after the Taliban government refused to turn over former leader Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, and more than 2,000 US personnel have died in the ensuing war.
Afghan security forces last year took the lead in ensuring security across the nation, but suffered a devastating string of setbacks at the hands of the Taliban.
About 9,800 US troops remain in Afghanistan in an advisory capacity, down from a peak of about 100,000 in March 2011. That number is set to drop to just 5,500 by the year’s end.
US forces are mainly confined to ministries or bases. Only special forces assist their Afghan counterparts on the battlefield.
A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the changes mean US troops can now embed with all Afghan troop units, not just their special forces.
US troops would not be fighting on the front lines against the Taliban, and are to stay in an advisory role, he added.
“It is for key things that will result in a very significant strategic gain in their efforts,” the official said.
The campaign to neutralize the Taliban has suffered multiple setbacks in the twilight of Obama’s presidency and Afghanistan’s fledgling security forces have struggled in the face of bloody Taliban assaults.
More than 5,000 Afghan troops died last year alone, prompting Obama to indefinitely postpone the withdrawal of US troops.
Afghan authorities on Wednesday recovered the bullet-ridden bodies of 12 security officials captured by the Taliban in eastern Ghazni Province. Gunmen kidnapped 40 others.
Local support for US efforts has been undermined by the unintended killing of Afghan civilians.
Last year, US missile strikes on a hospital in Kunduz killed 46 people and prompted worldwide outrage. At the same time, diplomatic efforts to engage the Taliban appear to have broken down.
The US killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a drone strike in Pakistan last month.
Obama then said that the organization’s new leadership would fight on.
“We anticipate the Taliban will continue an agenda of violence,” he said during a visit to Japan.
Obama’s latest decision would appear to push any brokered solution beyond his presidency.
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