UNITED STATES, Nov 23 – In a policy shift, President Barack Obama has decided to extend the combat role of U.S. forces in Afghanistan into 2015, allowing troops to keep fighting the Taliban and other militant groups that threaten American soldiers or the Afghan government, The New York Times reported. Back in May, the President described an exit strategy that called for an end to U.S. combat operations and the withdrawal of the U.S.-led international military force by the end of 2014.
While not confirming the article, a senior administration official told CNN the change is more about force protection designed to protect U.S. personnel in Afghanistan. “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, we will take appropriate measures to keep Americans safe.”
The policy shift apparently will not affect the number of American troops in Afghanistan. The Times said that half the 9,800 troops would leave by the end of next year. The Times said the new presidential action will allow American planes and drones to support Afghan troops in combat. The official told CNN that “the United States may provide combat enabler support to the [Afghan National Security Forces] in limited circumstances to prevent detrimental strategic effects to these Afghan security forces.”
The United States has had troops in Afghanistan for 13 years, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The website for Operation Enduring Freedom says 2,351 American soldiers have died in the conflict, along with 453 soldiers from the United Kingdom and 675 from other nations. The Times said two factors affected Obama’s decision: the poor performance of Iraqi troops as ISIS advances across Iraq and the election of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who welcomes an extended U.S. role more than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.
After Ghani’s election, Afghanistan and the United States signed a security agreement that allows U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond the previous December deadline to withdraw. Obama had said that under the security agreement, virtually all U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016, shortly before his presidency ends.
He had called for 9,800 U.S. troops to stay there after the end of 2014. The number would get cut roughly in half by the end of 2015, and a year later, the U.S. military presence would scale down to what officials described as a “normal” embassy security contingent. The administration official told CNN: “Safety of our personnel is the president’s first priority and our armed forces will continue to engage in operations in self-defense and in support of Afghan Security Forces.”