President Barack Obama on Friday gave the U.S. Department of Defense greater combat authority to help fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, two years after the United States declared that its fighting mission in the Middle Eastern nation had ended. Until now, U.S. ground and air forces were limited to providing no more than training and advisory support to Afghan forces. File Photo by Olivier Douliery/UPI | License Photo
WASHINGTON, June 10 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama's administration on Friday eased restrictions on American military forces in Afghanistan, which will allow U.S. troops to take on more of an active role in ongoing fighting there.
Obama's decision removes some key restrictions that barred U.S. support forces from actively fighting against Taliban militants. For example, commanders can now order air strikes against Taliban targets as they see fit, rather than being limited to an as-necessary basis.
The president's move also allows American ground forces to accompany Afghan government fighters into combat -- something they haven't formally been allowed to do for almost two years.
"This [will allow] U.S. forces to be more proactive in supporting conventional Afghan forces as they take the fight to the Taliban," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday. "But when they are accompanying, they [will] continue to remain focused on the advise-and-assist mission that they have been carrying out for almost two years."
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U.S. administration officials declared an end to the American combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, and Earnest said Friday that Obama is "not interested in restarting it."
In recent months, though, it has been reported that ground troops, particularly in the special forces, have continued to be active participants in the fight against the Taliban.
Since first landing in Afghanistan in 2001, following 9/11, the American military has attempted to set up a stable government and a solid armed forces in the country, capable of resisting the ousted Taliban regime by themselves. Friday's action, though, seems to support some claims in recent years that fully meeting that goal remains elusive.
After the end of the U.S. mission in 2014, Obama kept nearly 10,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan -- but said they were limited to strictly training Afghan soldiers and performing advisory roles, except in cases of self-defense.
The Pentagon, though, has been asking the president recently for more authority to fight the insurgents in Afghanistan, citing a critical need to control escalating destabilization there.
"The question is, is it possible for us to be more proactive in supporting conventional Afghan security forces? And we anticipate that by offering them more support, in the form of advice and assistance and occasionally accompanying them on their operations, that they are likely to be more effective on the battlefield," Earnest added. "That's the goal that has been pledged by the United States for years now."
The Obama administration plans to cut the number of American troops in Afghanistan by about half early next year. It remains unclear whether the president's decision Friday might impact that plan.