President Barack Obama has reportedly issued a classified order to extend the role of the US military in Afghanistan in 2015. According to several unnamed officials who spoke with the New York Times, the secret order gives Americans a direct role in fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban, and also allows for US air support to Afghan forces.
The Times report came as a surprise to many Americans. Obama announced in May that 2014 would be "the year we will conclude our combat mission in Afghanistan." He said the 9,800 US troops slated to remain in the country would be limited to training Afghan forces and "supporting counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda."
But the President's latest decree is not exactly a revelation. In fact, it appears to be in line with both his speech in May and the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the Afghan government that was finalized September 30.
The order puts in motion plans that American commanders on the ground in Afghanistan have been hinting at for the last few months. Since the inauguration of President Ashraf Ghani and the signing of the BSA, the US has been scrambling to put together the terms of what their support to Afghan forces would look like. The current commander of both NATO and American forces, Gen. John Campbell, recently told reporters that he was reviewing US plans for 2015 and beyond, but he first expressed reservations about the plans he was given as early as October during a Pentagon press briefing.
Campbell insisted that the Afghans had "taken over the fight," but said commanders had identified "gaps and seams," with the US assistance role, specifically mentioning close air support and intelligence as areas of concern.
In addition to plans for American forces, Campbell and his staff have been working to coordinate efforts for the new NATO mission, Resolute Support, which will replace the current International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission beginning in January 2015. The new NATO mission has been complicated by delays in the Afghan presidential election, the signing of the BSA, and the NATO status of forces agreement (SOFA) that governs all aspects of future NATO operations in Afghanistan.
The order puts in motion plans that American commanders on the ground in Afghanistan have been hinting at for the last few months.
The focus of the Times story is on Obama's speech in May. According to the Times, Obama said there would be "no combat role" for American forces. But the President didn't put it quite like that. What he did say is that America's "combat mission will be over by the end of this year." And that Americans "will no longer patrol Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys." Those distinctions are important.
The transition from combat to support roles means that Regional Commands (RCs) now become Train Advise Assist Commands (TAACs), staffed by combat commanders from various troop-contributing nations. And, while the US would no longer be on patrol or specifically conducting combat missions, they would help destroy "the remnants of al Qaeda."
That last line is crucial in understanding the justification behind Obama's decision to extend American support to include combat operations — it coincides with wording used in the BSA, and it isn't really an extension at all. According to the BSA, US combat operations would only occur under mutual agreement by both the Americans and the Afghans.
Under the current Afghan administration, that sort of "mutual agreement" is much more likely to occur. Unlike Hamid Karzai, Ghani has been open to American plans in Afghanistan, even rescinding Karzai's ban on night raids against insurgents. American combat operations in Afghanistan are something Ghani and his military leadership want in order to keep the Taliban at bay.
But beyond the role of American combat troops, Obama's classified order is an official response to other terms of the BSA. The agreement specifically allows for US forces to support their Afghan counterparts in counterterrorism operations.
Though Obama has seemingly reversed himself by allowing a limited US combat role, he is actually staying the course. The unilateral American combat mission — military operations conducted without consulting the Afghan government — will still cease in 2014. But combat operations at the request of the Afghan government, or in support of Afghan forces in counterterrorism operations, will not be coming to an end in 2014. Combat support — especially air power — is what Obama's order officially puts in place.
More support from American forces has been a common talking point for Afghan military personnel for the last several months. They have raised concerns that reduced air support after the US drawdown would be fatal. And the Americans have made it clear that air power would be part of the support package after Resolute Support begins in January. At no point did Obama address air power during his May speech, leaving him the requisite leeway for his recent decree.
It's true that Obama didn't make this order public, but the terms outlined in the classified order are within the broad lines of both his May speech and the latitude granted under the terms of the BSA. It's been Obama's goal to get American troops out of Afghanistan, but that plan has been hampered by what's happening now in Iraq.
If things were going differently against the Islamic State, it's possible that the level of US support in Afghanistan would be greatly reduced. But criticism of the 2011 withdrawal of American troops from Iraq weighs heavily on any decisions about Afghanistan. Obama's decree underscores the effect that the ongoing conflict in Iraq is having on its current one in Afghanistan.
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