President Obama has secretly approved an expansion of the war in Afghanistan, deploying more U.S. ground troops there for at least a year despite his recent claims that American soldiers were coming home.
The secret order allows the Pentagon to target Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, widening plans that limited the military mission to counterterrorism strikes against al Qaeda after this year, according to numerous reports.
In May, Obama said the U.S. military would have no combat role in Afghanistan next year, claiming that some 10,000 troops remaining there will train Afghan forces. The president's decision will also allow for air support and strikes on suspected Taliban.
According to the Associated Press, Obama "issued the guidelines in recent weeks, as the American combat mission in Afghanistan draws to a close, thousands of troops return home, and the military prepares for narrower counterterrorism and training mission for the next two years."
Obama's moves expand on what had been previously planned for next year. One U.S. official said the military could only go after the Taliban if it posed a threat to American forces or provided direct support to al Qaeda, while the latter could be targeted more indiscriminately.
'To the extent that Taliban members directly threaten the United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan or provide direct support to al Qaeda, however, we will take appropriate measures to keep Americans safe,' the official said.
The Taliban is far more widespread in Afghanistan than al Qaeda, which means the new U.S. mission will be broad.
According to the New York Times, the number of American troops deployed to Afghanistan for the wider mission is undetermined.
The Times said the secret order came after debate on two issues: "The promise Mr. Obama made to end the war in Afghanistan, versus the demands of the Pentagon that American troops be able to successfully fulfill their remaining missions in the country."
The internal discussion took place against the backdrop of this year’s collapse of Iraqi security forces in the face of the advance of the Islamic State as well as the mistrust between the Pentagon and the White House that still lingers since Mr. Obama’s 2009 decision to 'surge' 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan. Some of the president’s civilian advisers say that decision was made only because of excessive Pentagon pressure, and some military officials say it was half-baked and made with an eye to domestic politics.
Mr. Obama’s decision, made during a White House meeting in recent weeks with his senior national security advisers, came over the objection of some of his top civilian aides, who argued that American lives should not be put at risk next year in any operations against the Taliban — and that they should have only a narrow counterterrorism mission against Al Qaeda.
But the military pushed back, and generals both at the Pentagon and in Afghanistan urged Mr. Obama to define the mission more broadly to allow American troops to attack the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militants if intelligence revealed that the extremists were threatening American forces in the country.