The U.S. Defense Department downplayed reports that the White House approved a change in policy to expand the American combat role in Afghanistan into 2015.
The New York Times this week reported that President Barack Obama approved an order allowing American troops to continue targeting Taliban forces and other militant groups after Dec. 31, the previously planned end date for combat operations in the country.
Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby on Tuesday denied that the guidelines – which also allow for U.S. aircraft and drones to be used to support Afghan forces – reflect an expansion of the American combat mission.
"There's been no decision to expand in Afghanistan the authorities that our troops have, our commander has, to defend those troops or to continue to prosecute and go after terrorist targets," he said during a briefing at the Pentagon. "There's been no expansion of those authorities or the policies that govern those authorities."
Army Gen. John Campbell is the current commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the NATO International Security Assistance Force there.
Obama in May outlined his exit strategy for Afghanistan, where 2,353 American service members have died since 2001, according to iCasualties.org. He said some 9,800 U.S. troops would remain in the country after this year, but that number would drop by half to roughly 4,900 by the end of 2015 and to just a small embassy security contingent by the end of 2016, shortly before he leaves office.
At the time, the president said, "America's combat mission will be over by the end of this year. Starting next year, Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their country." His recent order authorizing U.S. troops to continue using armed force seems to undercut those statements.
Kirby said U.S. troops will be tasked with two primary missions: working with NATO counterparts to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces, and conducting counterterrorism operations. "Valid terrorist targets will continue to be prosecuted and our troops will continue to have the right and the ability to defend themselves when needed," he said.
When asked which group constitutes a valid target, Kirby said, "members of al-Qaida or al-Qaida-affiliated networks and other terrorist groups that continue to post a threat to the national-security of the U.S. and to the lives of our troops."
He added, "While we won't target Taliban merely for the sake of the fact that their Taliban and 'belligerents,' should members of the Taliban decide to threaten American troops or specifically target and threaten our Afghan partners in a tactical situation, we're going to reserve the right to take action as needed."
When asked whether U.S. forces will be targeting Taliban forces on a regular basis, Kirby said, "I don't think that's fair to say at all."
The press briefing came a day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced his resignation, reportedly in part because of disagreements with the White House over how to manage operations against militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, in the Middle East.
The U.S. has about 1,400 troops in Iraq, most of which are serving as advisers to Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Baghdad and Irbil. Obama, who once called the war in Iraq a "dumb war," this month authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 more troops to better advise – and train – Iraqi forces. The additional service members are expected to deploy to the country over the next 30 to 45 days.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last week said the U.S.-led fight against ISIS will last three to four years.
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at email@example.com