WASHINGTON (AP) — Far from ending the two wars he inherited from the Bush administration, Barack Obama is wrestling with an expanded set of conflicts in the final months of his presidency, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya and Syria, with no end in sight. In Afghanistan, where a Taliban resurgence has upset Washington's "exit strategy," Obama is giving the U.S. military wider latitude to support Afghan forces, both in the air and on the ground.
The White House says U.S. forces are not taking on a new mission in Afghanistan but rather will "more proactively support" government forces. That amounts to an acknowledgement that the Afghans need more help than the Pentagon had anticipated last year, and it is a signal to allies not to abandon the U.S.-led coalition. Defense Secretary Ash Carter will be discussing this next week in talks at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
The 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are scheduled to drop to 5,500 by the end of this year, but the pace of that decline has yet to be decided. One factor in deciding future troop levels is the extent to which NATO allies are willing to remain involved in training and advising the Afghans.
Five years ago this month, in announcing the beginning of his effort to "wind down this war" in Afghanistan, Obama declared that "the tide of war is receding." He had ended the U.S. combat role in Iraq, but since then has gradually expanded a renewed U.S. involvement there against the Islamic State group. He also put U.S. warplanes in the skies over Libya in 2011 in the name of preventing a slaughter of civilians, only to see chaos ensue, and now small teams of U.S. special operations forces have been involved in activities there. Libya, along with Syria and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, became a breeding ground for extremism in a wider conflict against the Islamic State.
The administration says it remains committed to a partnership with Afghanistan to ensure that it does not revert to a haven for al-Qaida or other extremists with global reach, as it was before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In a letter to Obama last week, several former U.S. ambassadors to Kabul and five retired U.S. generals who commanded American troops there urged that the president keep current troop levels through the end of his term, allowing his successor to consider next steps. They argued that Afghanistan remains important to the broader campaign to defeat global terror movements.
"If Afghanistan were to revert to the chaos of the 1990s, millions of refugees would again seek shelter in neighboring countries and overseas, dramatically intensifying the severe challenges already faced in Europe and beyond," they wrote. "Afghanistan is a place where we should wish to consolidate and lock down our provisional progress into something of a more lasting asset."
With U.S. special operations forces already focused on al-Qaida remnants in Afghanistan, the Afghan government says it can handle the Taliban if the U.S. expands its air support. That is at the core of Obama's decision, disclosed Thursday, to authorize U.S. commanders to increase air support and to allow U.S. soldiers to accompany and advise Afghan conventional forces on the ground in the same way they have been assisting Afghan commando forces.
This will make a difference on the battlefield, Carter said Friday, by enabling U.S. commanders to anticipate situations in which U.S. support is needed, rather than to be reactive. He did not mention it, but an illustration of the problem with being reactive is the Taliban's takeover of the northern city of Kunduz last September, which was reversed only after U.S. special operations forces intervened. The intervention, while ultimately successful, led to one of the worst U.S. mistakes of the 15-year war when an AC-130 gunship pummeled a hospital, killing 42 people.
Carter said the changes Obama approved amount to "using the forces we have in a better way, as we go through this fighting season," adding, "It's a good use of the combat power we have there."
Gen. John F. Campbell, who was the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan until March and was among the retired generals who signed last week's letter to Obama, said in an interview Friday that although he had not seen the specifics of the White House decision to expand U.S. military authorities, he welcomed the move. Before Gen. John Nicholson succeeded him in Kabul in March, Campbell urged the administration to grant expanded authorities to assist the Afghans, arguing that they faced an especially difficult fight against the Taliban this summer.
"I had asked for more authorities for the commander on the ground to help the Afghans out, and if this is what that is, I would be all for it," he said. "We have an ally there that we need to continue to support."
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Lynne O'Donnell in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.