Re­vival of US airstrikes in Afghanistan

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Lolita C Bal­dor, Robert Burns — Cour­tesy: The Chris­tian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor

AF­TER months of de­bate, the US has de­cided to ex­pand the mil­i­tary’s author­ity to con­duct airstrikes against the Tal­iban as vi­o­lence in Afghanistan es­ca­lates, a se­nior US de­fence of­fi­cial said. The of­fi­cial said there is a broad de­sire across the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to give the mil­i­tary greater abil­ity to help the Afghans fight and win the war. The of­fi­cial said the US ex­panded the author­ity of US com­man­ders to strike the Tal­iban and do what­ever else is nec­es­sary with the forces they have to sup­port the Afghan op­er­a­tions.

The 9,800 US troops still in Afghanistan, how­ever, would still not be in­volved in di­rect com­bat. The de­ci­sion comes as the Afghans strug­gle with a resur­gent Tal­iban, par­tic­u­larly in the south. But it is fraught with political sen­si­tiv­i­ties be­cause Pres­i­dent Barack Obama had made clear his com­mit­ment to get US forces out of Afghanistan. That ef­fort, how­ever, has been stalled by the slow pace of the de­vel­op­ment of the Afghan mil­i­tary and the re­silience of the Tal­iban.

The Tal­iban are re­fo­cus­ing their at­ten­tion mostly on the south­ern prov­inces of Hel­mand, Kan­da­har, and Uruz­gan, ac­cord­ing to US and Afghan mil­i­tary of­fi­cials, al­though the in­sur­gents also have struck else­where, such as in Kun­duz province in the north, where they over­ran and held the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal for a few days last fall. The re­sults have been daunt­ing: The UN says 3,545 Afghan civil­ians were killed and 7,457 wounded in 2015, most of them by the Tal­iban.

The US has con­tin­ued to con­duct counter-ter­ror­ism strikes against alQaeda and ISIS mil­i­tants in Afghanistan. But strikes against the Tal­iban were largely halted at the end of 2014, when the US-led coali­tion’s com­bat role ended. Lim­ited strikes have been al­lowed in cases of self-de­fence or when Afghan forces were in danger of be­ing over­run. Gen. John Ni­chol­son, the top US com­man­der in Afghanistan, has dis­cussed with De­fence Sec­re­tary Ash Carter his rec­om­men­da­tions for moves the US can make to fur­ther as­sist the Afghans. And there have been on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tions with the White House.

Pen­tagon press sec­re­tary Peter Cook said: “In ev­ery step of our re­view of Afghanistan, the ques­tion of what’s the best way to use our forces is some­thing we’re con­stantly look­ing at. It’s also in the same sense that we’re look­ing at the num­ber of troops. We are al­ways look­ing at the author­i­ties ques­tion and the best use of our troops.” Gen. Ni­chol­son’s pre­de­ces­sor, Gen. John Camp­bell, made it known be­fore he left Kabul in March that he be­lieved Mr. Carter should con­sider ex­pand- ing US mil­i­tary author­i­ties to take on the Tal­iban.

Also un­der dis­cus­sion is whether the US should re­duce the num­ber of Amer­i­can troops in Afghanistan to 5,500 as planned by the end of this year, or if a higher num­ber is needed. Gen. Camp­bell favoured keeping the troop level at the cur­rent to­tal of 9,800 into next year. US of­fi­cials have in­sisted they are en­cour­aged by the Afghan forces’ re­silience, de­spite their high rate of bat­tle­field ca­su­al­ties. And they point to the Tal­iban’s loss of its leader, Mullah Mo­hammed Akhtar Man­sour, who was killed by a US drone strike in late May in Pak­istan.

The US and NATO for­mally ended their com­bat mis­sion in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, but have con­tin­ued to pro­vide sup­port and as­sis­tance as the Afghan forces strug­gle to grow and gain greater ca­pa­bil­i­ties, in­clud­ing in their air op­er­a­tions.

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