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Obama Expands U.S. Military's Authority To Target Taliban In Afghanistan

Afghan National Army soldiers stand guard as a U.S. helicopter flies over Jalalabad Airport on Oct. 2, 2015.
Noorullah Shirzada
AFP/Getty Images
Afghan National Army soldiers stand guard as a U.S. helicopter flies over Jalalabad Airport on Oct. 2, 2015.

President Obama has given U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan new authority to target the Taliban.

Pentagon officials say the president is authorizing commanders to order airstrikes to support major Afghan offensives, NPR national security editor Phil Ewing reports, adding that the airstrikes must be "the deciding factor" in helping an offensive succeed.

Previously, commanders had been authorized to issue airstrikes to defend U.S. troops or "prevent major overruns of Afghan troops by the Taliban," Phil says.

Defense officials tell Phil the president is also authorizing U.S. commanders to deploy troops along with regular Afghan infantry forces — not just Afghan special operations forces, which the military is currently assisting.

"American ground troops will remain technically proscribed from engaging in direct combat, although they will be serving along with operational Afghan units that sometimes get into contact with the Taliban," Phil says.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the decision will allow the U.S. military to "act proactively."

"It's using forces we have in a better way, as we go through this fighting season, rather than simply reacting," he said. "Obviously our mission is the same, which is to help the Afghans maintain control of the country and to avoid having a counterterrorism challenge once again from Afghanistan."

The approval for expanded authority comes after months of debate, The Associated Press reports.

The move is "politically sensitive," the wire service notes, because "Obama had made clear his commitment to get U.S. forces out of Afghanistan. That effort, however, has been stalled by the slow pace of the development of the Afghan military and the resilience of the Taliban."

Phil reports:

"The request for the new authorities comes from the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, who concurred with a process begun under his predecessor, Gen. John Campbell.

"There was no single 'precipitating event' that led the commanders to ask for the expanded authority, one defense official said, but the Taliban have been making gains around Afghanistan and putting pressure on the U.S.-supported Afghan military. The next major milestone could be Nicholson's recommendation to Obama about how many U.S. troops to keep in Afghanistan through this year."

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.