Afghanistan: the plot thickens

Afghan National Army soldier Taza Khan hands a bag of beef jerky to a local boy, injured by an improvised explosive device, while patrolling with U.S. Marines from 3rd Platoon, Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment during Operation Tageer Shamal (Shifting Winds)  on 5 January 2012.Last week, the New York Times reported that the post-2014 mission in Afghanistan is expanding, at least for US forces. The move ‘ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year’. Of the 12,000 troops expected to remain in Afghanistan as part of the international coalition next year, approximately 9,800 will be Americans. Since the article’s publication, the Department of Defense has denied allegations that the Afghanistan mission has changed or that the combat role for international forces is extending into 2015.

So what’s happened? A few weeks ago, President Obama signed an order clarifying authorities that US military commanders will have after the end of the ISAF combat mission this month. Those authorities allow ‘American forces to carry out missions against Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government… [T]he new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions’. The Pentagon helpfully added that US troops may provide field-level support for Afghan security forces.

The New York Times expected that, under a non-combat mission, the military would be prohibited from conducting such activities. By stating that the mission hasn’t changed, the US Defense Department is arguing that those authorities constitute part of the train, advise, and assist mission and/or counterterrorism mission authorised for 2015.

As my colleague Jan K. Gleiman outlined a few months ago, defining a train, advise, and assist mission isn’t clear-cut. The leaked authorities would allow troops to venture out from behind the wire a bit more often than expected, but they aren’t necessarily mandates for offensive combat. They could be described as enhanced force protection measures, particularly given the escalating security situation. The Taliban claims that the 11 attacks in Kabul in last two to three weeks are aimed at forcing foreigners to leave the capital. International troops and aid partners are definitely still being targeted.

But other than an outright attack, what’s the US military’s threshold for action? Because let’s face it—Afghanistan will continue to be an active warzone in 2015. Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby attempted clarification by stating:

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. If they pose a threat directly to our troops or to the Afghan security forces, certainly then they become fair game at that point.

So we aren’t targeting the Taliban as a group, but if they get into a confrontation with the Coalition or the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), they’re fair game. But that’s happening continuously across the country now, so it really doesn’t provide much clarification.

Depending on the threat level required for action, the list of acceptable engagements mightn’t be shrinking as dramatically as the US Department of Defense would like us to believe. Still, the strategic priorities are institution-building and reconciliation rather than winning every skirmish with the Taliban.

The second part of the New York Times’ revelation, that American jets, bombers and drones will be allowed to support Afghan troops on combat missions, can be filed under ‘enabler support’. The Pentagon has been saying for years that the ANSF will need enabler support beyond 2014, so it should come as no surprise that the Pentagon’s delivering on those predictions.

So strategically speaking, do the expanded authorities matter? Yes and no.

Since the 2010 Lisbon Summit Declaration, the international community’s agreed that the transition of security responsibility to the ANSF should be conditions-based, but the expansion of authorities is the first concrete sign this might be the case. That may indicate the White House has learned some lessons from Iraq and is going to be more cautious with the exit from Afghanistan.

On the other hand, while the expanded authorities may give the ANSF increased confidence on the battlefield, they’re unlikely to affect the trajectory of the campaign. Instead of altering a strategy that falters with decreasing international assistance, we’re simply extending some of the old rules into 2014. It’s not that these additional authorities are insignificant, but rather that they are unlikely to make a strategic impact given the one- to two-year time period. International troop levels and assistance will continue to decline, and with it, the viability of the mission. The ANSF and key ministries simply aren’t ready to stand on their own.

Furthermore, the campaign is still only conditions-based to a point. The resources aren’t expanding, so the personnel providing enabler support and enhanced force protection aren’t spending as much time training, advising, and assisting the Afghans. There’s no reason to think that the security threats will dissipate significantly in 2015, nor that the situation will be stable by the time the US draws down to a normal embassy presence in just two years time.

Finally, it’s important to remember that President Ghani is much more open to international action than President Karzai was. So US troop authorities for 2015 may reflect a change in Kabul rather than in Washington. If that’s a portent of Afghan-instigated changes to come, this might just be the strategic shift the campaign needs.

Brieana Marticorena is a visiting fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos.