In Secret, Obama Extends U.S. Role in Afghan Combat'Its Harder to End Wars than to Begin them' - Obama
By MARK MAZZETTI and ERIC SCHMITT, The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Nov 21 — President Obama signed a secret order in recent weeks authorizing a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year.

Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

In an announcement in the White House Rose Garden in May, Mr. Obama said that the American military would have no combat role in Afghanistan next year, and that the missions for the 9,800 troops remaining in the country would be limited to training Afghan forces and to hunting the “remnants of Al Qaeda.”

The decision to change that mission was the result of a lengthy and heated debate that laid bare the tension inside the Obama administration between two often-competing imperatives: 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 believe that decision was made only because of excessive Pentagon pressure, and some military officials believe 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.

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But the military pushed back, and generals both at the Pentagon and 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.

The president’s order under certain circumstances would also authorize American airstrikes to support Afghan military operations in the country and ground troops to occasionally accompany Afghan troops on operations against the Taliban.

“There was a school of thought that wanted the mission to be very limited, focused solely on Al Qaeda,” one American official said.

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But, the official said, “the military pretty much got what it wanted.”

On Friday evening, a senior administration official insisted that American forces would not carry out regular patrols or conduct offensive missions against the Taliban next year.

“We will no longer target belligerents solely because they are members of the Taliban,” the official said. “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.”

In effect, Mr. Obama’s decision largely extends the current American military role for another year. Mr. Obama and his aides were forced to make a decision because the 13-year old mission, Operation Enduring Freedom, is set to end on Dec. 31.

The matter of the military’s role in Afghanistan in 2015 has “been a really, really contentious issue for a long time, even more contentious than troop numbers,” said Vikram Singh, who worked on Afghanistan policy both at the State Department and the Pentagon during the Obama administration and is now at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

American officials said that while the debate over the nature of the American military’s role beginning in 2015 has lasted for years, two issues in particular have shifted the debate in recent months.

The first is the advance of Islamic State forces across northern Iraq and the collapse of the Iraqi Army, which has led to criticism of Mr. Obama for a military pullout of Iraq that left Iraqi troops ill-prepared to protect their soil.

This has intensified criticism of Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, which Republican and even some Democratic lawmakers have said adheres to an overly compressed timeline that would hamper efforts to train and advise Afghan security forces — potentially leaving the them vulnerable to attack from Taliban fighters and other extremists in the meantime.

This new arrangement could blunt some of that criticism, although it is also likely to be criticized by some Democratic lawmakers who will say that Mr. Obama allowed the military to dictate the terms of the endgame in Afghanistan.

The second factor is the transfer of power in Afghanistan to President Ashraf Ghani, who has been far more accepting of an expansive American military mission in his country than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

According to a senior Afghan official and a former Afghan official who maintains close ties to his former colleagues, in recent weeks both Mr. Ghani and his new national security adviser, Hanif Atmar, have requested that the United States continue to fight Taliban forces in 2015 — as opposed to being strictly limited to operations against Al Qaeda. Mr. Ghani also recently lifted the limits on American airstrikes and joint raids that Mr. Karzai had put in place, the Afghan officials said.

The new Afghan president has already developed a close working relationship with Gen. John F. Campbell, the allied commander in Afghanistan.

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“The difference is night and day,” General Campbell said in an email about the distinction between dealing with Mr. Ghani and Mr. Karzai. “President Ghani has reached out and embraced the international community. We have a strategic opportunity we haven’t had previously with President Karzai.”

American military officials saw the easing of the limits on airstrikes imposed by Mr. Karzai as especially significant, even if the restrictions were not always honored. During the summer, Afghan generals occasionally ignored Mr. Karzai’s directive and requested American air support when their forces encountered trouble.

Now it appears such requests will no longer have to be kept secret.

One senior American military officer said that in light of Mr. Obama’s decision, the Air Force expects to use F-16 fighters, B-1B bombers and Predator and Reaper drones to go after the Taliban in 2015.

“Our plans are to maintain an offensive capability in Afghanistan,” he said.

The officer said he expected the Pentagon to issue an order in the next several weeks detailing the military’s role in Afghanistan in 2015 under Operation Resolute Support, which will become the new name for the Afghanistan war.

The Pentagon plans to take the lead role in advising and training Afghan forces in southern and eastern Afghanistan, with Italy also operating in the east, Germany in the north and Turkey in Kabul.

But by the end of next year, half of the 9,800 American troops would leave Afghanistan. The rest would be consolidated in Kabul and Bagram, and then leave by the end of 2016, allowing Mr. Obama to say he ended the Afghan war before leaving office.

America’s NATO allies are expected to keep about 4,000 troops of their own in Afghanistan in 2015. The allies are expected to follow the American lead in consolidating and withdrawing their troops.

The United States could still have military advisers in Kabul after 2016 who would work out of an office of security cooperation at the United States Embassy. But the administration has not said how large that contingent might be and what its exact mission would be.

And it remains unclear how the continuing chaos in Iraq — and Mr. Obama’s decision to send troops back there — will affect the administration’s plans for an Afghanistan exit.

As the president said in the Rose Garden in May, “I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them.”

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