KABUL: Afghanistan on Saturday hailed Washington’s decision to expand the US military’s authority to tackle a resurgent Taliban insurgency, saying the support will boost the capacity of struggling local forces.
The decision will allow US troops, who have been in a training and advisory role in Afghanistan since the start of 2015, to collaborate more closely with local forces in striking the Taliban.
“We welcome the US announcement of broader involvement in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan,” defense ministry spokesman Daulat Waziri told Agence France-Presse. “We may not need more boots on the ground, but we need their advisors and we need them to equip our air force. Their involvement will increase our capacity in operations on the ground.”
The US announcement comes after Afghan forces, beset by record casualties, desertions and troop shortages, suffered a string of setbacks last year at the hands of the Taliban.
The decision would expand the military’s authority to conduct air strikes against the Taliban when necessary, significantly boosting Afghan forces who currently have limited close air-support capacities.
“We welcome measures taken by the US as our strategic partner to fight terrorism,” said deputy presidential spokesman Sayed Zafar Hashimi.
In a statement the Taliban condemned the US decision, saying it would only prolong the conflict and vowed to press on with their 15-year insurgency.
Some 9,800 US troops remain in Afghanistan in an advisory capacity, down from a peak of around 100,000 in March 2011. That number is set to drop to just 5,500 by the year’s end.
An American defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said despite the expanding role the US troops would still not be involved in direct combat.
Still, the new announcement is fraught with political sensitivities as it marks a departure from President Barack Obama’s earlier commitment to end the grinding conflict and pull US troops out of Afghanistan.
Obama last month authorized a rare US drone strike deep inside Pakistan, killing Taliban supremo Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a raid which highlighted an aggressive new push to target the insurgents.
“The US presidential election is coming up this year and Obama needs to show that the war in Afghanistan is still important,” Kabul-based military analyst Wahid Taqat told AFP. “He cannot afford to let Afghanistan fail.”