More support for Afghan troops part of latest Obama strategy

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Washington—Far from ending the two wars he inherited from the Bush administration, Barack Obama is wrestling with an expanded set of conflicts in the final months of his presidency, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya and Syria, with no end in sight. In Afghanistan, where a Taliban resurgence has upset Washington’s “exit strategy,” Obama is giving the US military wider latitude to support Afghan forces, both in the air and on the ground.
The White House says US forces are not taking on a new mission in Afghanistan but rather will “more proactively support” government forces. That amounts to an acknowledgement that the Afghans need more help than the Pentagonhad anticipated last year, and it is a signal to allies not to abandon the US-led coalition. Defense Secretary Ash Carter will be discussing this next week in talks at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
The 9,800 US troops in Afghanistan are scheduled to drop to 5,500 by the end of this year, but the pace of that decline has yet to be decided. One factor in deciding future troop levels is the extent to which NATO allies are willing to remain involved in training and advising the Afghans.
Five years ago this month, in announcing the beginning of his effort to “wind down this war” in Afghanistan, Obama declared that “the tide of war is receding.” He had ended the US combat role in Iraq, but since then has gradually expanded a renewed US involvement there against the ISIS group. He also put US warplanes in the skies over Libya in 2011 in the name of preventing a slaughter of civilians, only to see chaos ensue, and now small teams of US special operations forces have been involved in activities there. Libya, along with Syria and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, became a breeding ground for extremism in a wider conflict against the ISIS.
The administration says it remains committed to a partnership with Afghanistan to ensure that it does not revert to a haven for al-Qaida or other extremists with global reach, as it was before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In a letter to Obama last week, several former US ambassadors to Kabul and five retired US generals who commanded American troops there urged that the president keep current troop levels through the end of his term, allowing his successor to consider next steps. They argued that Afghanistan remains important to the broader campaign to defeat global terror movements.
“If Afghanistan were to revert to the chaos of the 1990s, millions of refugees would again seek shelter in neighboring countries and overseas, dramatically intensifying the severe challenges already faced in Europe and beyond,” they wrote. “Afghanistan is a place where we should wish to consolidate and lock down our provisional progress into something of a more lasting asset.”
With US special operations forces already focused on al-Qaida remnants in Afghanistan, the Afghan government says it can handle the Taliban if the US expands its air support. That is at the core of Obama’s decision, disclosed Thursday, to authorize US commanders to increase air support and to allow US soldiers to accompany and advise Afghan conventional forces on the ground in the same way they have been assisting Afghan commando forces.
This will make a difference on the battlefield, Carter said Friday, by enabling US commanders to anticipate situations in which US support is needed, rather than to be reactive. He did not mention it, but an illustration of the problem with being reactive is the Taliban’s takeover of the northern city of Kunduz last September, which was reversed only after US special operations forces intervened. The intervention, while ultimately successful, led to one of the worst US mistakes of the 15-year war when an AC-130 gunship pummeled a hospital, killing 42 people.
Carter said the changes Obama approved amount to “using the forces we have in a better way, as we go through this fighting season,” adding, “It’s a good use of the combat power we have there.”—Agencies

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