Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Obama seeks to expand US role in Afghanistan in 2015 to include combat

While US combat troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of this year, under an agreement signed by the new Afghan president Ashraf Ghani almost 10,000 troops will remain through 2015 at least.



Back in May of this year, Obama claimed that US troops remaining in Afghanistan after the end of this year would not play any combat role. The troops would train Afghan forces, and hunt down any remnants of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Now Obama plans to extend the role of the remaining troops to include combat actions against the Taliban and any other militant group that threatens either the US troops or the Afghan government, according to "several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision" who spoke to the New York Times. President Ghani not only supported but apparently even requested the expanded US role even though such a role was not set out in the original bilateral agreement on security he recently signed. Again the New York Times quotes anonymous officials: 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 authorization by Obama will also allow US jets, bombers, and drones to assist Afghan forces in their own combat missions.
 US bombings in Afghanstan have killed many civilians and provoked strong public reaction. President Ghani could face a serious backlash on this matter. He shares power with the runner-up in the contested presidential campaign Abdullah Abdullah. Abdullah could use such reactions for his own political purposes. The Pentagon apparently pressed Obama to make the changes so as to ensure that the Taliban would not be able to return to power. The Pentagon apparently is worried that the Taliban could rapidly advance against Afghan forces just as the Islamic State did against Iraqi troops in Iraq.
 Some of Obamas civilian aides spoke against the change in policy arguing that American lives should be not put at stake through combat operations against the Taliban. Just recently two US soldiers were killed in Kabul, the capital, as their vehicle suffered from a bomb blast. The new policy is made much easier by the relationship that is developing between the US military and President Ghani. General John Campbell the allied commander in Afghanistan claimed that President Ghani was very easy to work with compared to former president Karzai: “The difference is night and day. President Ghani has reached out and embraced the international community. We have a strategic opportunity we haven’t had previously with President Karzai.” If there is strong public reaction to the US role Ghani could change his tune.
A senior US military officer said that the Air Force would likely use F-16 fighters, B-1B bombers, and both Reaper and Predator drones in operations against the Taliban in 2015. The Afghans expected that foreign combat operations would be ending in 2015. This is what Obama promised too, but as with other promises he made, this one will not be kept. Should there be many US casualties there could be a negative political reaction in the US matched by a similar reaction to Afghan civilians killed as collateral damage in the air attacks.
 The Afghan parliament recently passed the new bilateral security agreement which could keep some US troops in Afghanistan for another decade or even beyond, although present plans call for most to be about by the end of 2016. The vote was overwhelming 152 in favor and 5 against. There was no discussion of the changes that Obama plans, namely that the troops would play a combat rather than just an advisory role and also that there would be allied air attacks including, as support for Afghan operations. President Ghani, however, is said to approve these extensions.
 Meanwhile, Obama's Defense Minister Chuck Hagel has resigned. There will be much speculation as to the reasons for the resignation. Some already claim he was in effect fired, others that Hagel was dissatisfied with Obama's policy. Whatever the causes, Obama is clearly switching to a more aggressive military policy and will probably look for a defense minister who will fit into the new model in which, rather than military operations being cut back in some areas, they will be vastly expanded as in Iraq, Syria, and now it seems Afghanistan,.