WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama has approved giving the US military greater ability to accompany and enable Afghan forces battling a resilient Taliban insurgency, in a move to assist them more proactively on the battlefield, a US official said.

The senior US defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the decision would also allow greater use of US air power, particularly close air support.

However, the official cautioned: “This is not a blanket order to target the Taliban.”

Mr Obama’s decision again redefines America’s support role in Afghanistan’s grinding insurgency, more than a year after international forces wrapped up their combat mission and shifted the burden to Afghan troops.

It also comes ahead of the president’s eagerly anticipated decision on whether to forge ahead with a scheduled reduction in the numbers of US troops from about 9,800 currently to 5,500 by the start of 2017.

A group of retired generals and senior diplomats urged Mr Obama last week to forgo those plans, warning they could undermine the fight against the Afghan Taliban.

Under the new policy, the US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, will be able to decide when it is appropriate for American troops to accompany conventional Afghan forces into the field — something they have so far only been doing with Afghan special forces, the official said.

The expanded powers are only meant to be employed “in those select instances in which their engagement can enable strategic effects on the battlefield”, the official said.

That means that US forces should not be expected to accompany Afghan soldiers on day-to-day missions.

The decision is a departure from current US rules of engagement in Afghanistan, which impose limits on US forces’ ability to strike at insurgents.

For example, the US military was previously allowed to take action against the Taliban “in extremis” — moments when their assistance was needed to prevent a significant Afghan military setback.

That definition, however, left the US military postured to assist them in more defensive instances. The new policy would allow US forces to accompany Afghans at key moments in their offensive campaign against the Taliban.

“The US forces will more proactively support Afghan conventional forces,” the official said.

The Taliban control or contest more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since they were ousted by a US-backed intervention in late 2001, and US officials have acknowledged the uneven performance of Afghan security forces.

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2016

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