President Barack Obama has approved expanded authorities that will allow U.S. troops to accompany and conduct offensive operations with Afghan forces under certain conditions, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced Friday.
The expanded authorities, proposed by Gen. John Nicholson, the new top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, will allow troops to now accompany Afghan conventional forces on missions and conduct offensive strikes against the Taliban or other threats when the strike would have a "strategic effect on the battlefield," a senior defense official said on the condition he not be named.
Previously U.S. advisers were limited to working with Afghan special forces. U.S. firepower was limited to specific strikes in defense of their own troops or in the defense of the Afghan forces they were advising, in circumstances of counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaida and the Islamic State group or in situations "in extremis" -- where there was a specific threat that warranted a response from U.S. forces.
The expanded role for U.S. forces in Afghanistan will also apply to the use of close air support and surveillance drones in offensive strikes, the official said. While U.S. forces will be accompanying conventional Afghan forces, they will not be on the front lines, the official said.
"The president made a decision to enable the commander there to have some additional authority to act proactively -- that is to anticipate situations in which the Afghan security forces would benefit from our support ... rather than be simply reactive," Carter said Friday during a technology summit speech in Washington, D.C.
Another defense official told Stars and Stripes that the Pentagon was in the process of drafting orders that would lay out guidelines for the new authorities, including the rules of engagement and whether U.S. forces will be inserted to accompany the Afghan forces at brigade or smaller-sized units.
Obama announced the end of combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014 and transitioned the remaining U.S. forces there to train and advise Afghan security forces. However, in the last 18 months, a resurgence of Taliban violence and the arrival of Islamic State group affiliates in Afghanistan has kept the United States from withdrawing its remaining 9,800 forces.
Nicholson arrived in Afghanistan three months ago as a replacement for former U.S. commander Gen. John Campbell. Nicholson has spent that time reviewing U.S. plans and strategies for Afghanistan, including whether the United States will cut the number of troops in Afghanistan to 5,500 by the end of the year.
Nicholson's recommendation on the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is expected to be announced soon, given the time required to draw down forces, if he concludes less troops are needed there. It was not part of Friday's announcement.