WASHINGTON: The US military likely will keep a slightly larger force in Afghanistan in 2015 than first planned and American troops will have authority to come to the aid of Afghan forces if necessary, officials said on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila).
The United States may have to deploy hundreds of additional forces in coming months, beyond the 9,800-strong contingent announced previously, because of a shortfall in troop contributions from NATO members, defense officials told Agence France-Presse.
Commanders were still working out the details but there was a shortage of roughly 400 to 700 NATO troops that would need to be filled temporarily by US forces through the winter months of 2015, said a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“This is just to bridge the gap,” the official said.
The shortfall was a result of the delayed signing of a bilateral security agreement this year between Washington and Kabul, which also complicated deals with other NATO countries to deploy troops to Afghanistan starting next year.
The post-2014 NATO mission calls for 12,500 troops to remain on the ground starting in January, with about 2,700 non-US forces.
Military officers had indicated earlier this month to Agence France-Presse that the postponed signing of the US-Afghan security agreement due to a protracted electoral dispute had raised doubts about whether allied governments could have arrangements in place for troops to deploy by 2015.
The change in troop drawdown plans came as President Barack Obama’s administration revised the parameters of the mission for American troops next year.
Obama had said the US combat mission in the country will end this year as the bulk of the NATO force withdraws, with remaining troops focused on training Afghan soldiers and targeting Al-Qaeda militants.
But US national security officials last week decided that American forces would be permitted to take action to help Afghan army and police in battles with the Taliban insurgency.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said that “should members of the Taliban decide to threaten American troops or specifically target or threaten our Afghan partners in a tactical situation, we’re going to reserve the right to take action as needed.”
Both the Pentagon and the State Department insisted the mission had not been expanded in any way, but officials acknowledged privately that the question of combat support for Afghan troops had remained unresolved.
The New York Times first reported the move over the weekend.
Under the decision, commanders would have the authority to call in air strikes or medical evacuations for Afghan forces in dire situations, officials said.
The commander in Kabul would have the power to decide whether to intervene to back up Afghan army and police to “prevent detrimental strategic effects,” the official said.
Officials declined to offer details of the operational rules, which they said were classified to avoid giving an advantage to insurgents.
The decision had been signaled in earlier comments by senior US commanders in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, head of ISAF joint command, told reporters via video link earlier this month that US warplanes starting in 2015 probably would back up Afghan forces in the future only “in extremis” or “catastrophic” situations.
Having relied heavily in the past on American air power in battles with Taliban insurgents, Afghan troops and their fledgling air force will now face a tough test in their campaign against the militants.
There are currently 16,100 US troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2010.