Mission creep: Obama secretly widens Afghan war

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Star Tribune

U.S. troops, jets, bombers and drones committed for more combat missions.

President Obama signed a secret order in recent weeks authorizing a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures U.S. troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year.

Obama’s order allows U.S. forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows U.S. jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.

In an announcement in May, Obama said the U.S. military would have no combat role in Afghanistan next year, and that missions for the 9,800 troops remaining in the country would be limited to training Afghan forces and hunting “remnants of Al-Qaida.”

Long, heated debate

The decision to change that mission was the result of a long and heated debate that laid bare the tension inside the Obama administration between two often-competing imperatives: the promise Obama made to end the war in Afghanistan vs. the demands of the Pentagon that U.S. troops be able to fulfill remaining missions.

The internal discussion took place against the backdrop of this year’s collapse of Iraqi security forces in the face of the advance of the Islamic State as well as the mistrust between the Pentagon and the White House that still lingers since Obama’s 2009 decision to “surge” 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan. Some of the president’s civilian advisers believe that decision was made only because of excessive Pentagon pressure, and some military officials believe it was half-baked and made with an eye to politics.

Obama’s decision came over the objection of some of his top civilian aides, who argued that American lives should not be put at risk next year in any operations against the Taliban — and that they should have only a narrow counterterrorism mission against Al-Qaida.

Resistance from military

But the military pushed back, and generals both at the Pentagon and Afghanistan urged Obama to define the mission more broadly to allow U.S. troops to attack the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militants if intelligence revealed that the extremists were threatening American forces in the country.

The president’s order under certain circumstances would also authorize U.S. airstrikes to support Afghan military operations in the country and ground troops to occasionally accompany Afghan troops on operations against the Taliban.

“There was a school of thought that wanted the mission to be very limited, focused solely on Al-Qaida,” one U.S. official said. But, the official said, “the military pretty much got what it wanted.”

On Friday evening, a senior administration official insisted that U.S. forces would not carry out regular patrols or conduct offensive missions.

“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-Qaida, however, we will take appropriate measures to keep Americans safe.”

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