Barack Obama has reconsidered. Yes to American military operations in Afghanistan. It’s been a year and a half since the end of the combat missions in the Central Asian country, but things on the ground took a turn for the worse.
So bad that, urged by the Pentagon, Obama has backed down, according to reports from unnamed sources in the most important U.S. newspapers. Little change on paper, big change on the ground: From the beginning of 2015 and up to today, the commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan had the authority to decide when it was necessary for his men to help the Afghan Special Forces.
With the new rules of engagement — that President Obama has yet to make official — General John Nicolson may decide also to assist conventional forces in the services of the Kabul government. As always happens in these cases, there is a lot of back and forth: The powers of American intervention are extended, but only in cases where they can push a strategic advance on the battlefield.
The American soldiers will carry out operations on the ground (like the special forces and contractors already do), but only in support of Afghan forces, and not in direct combat, specified the anonymous sources. What is certain is that the new rules also serve to grant more leeway to air operations, which are considered necessary to support Afghan troops in offensive contexts, not only defensive. Under current conditions, the bombings may occur in three scenarios: to protect American forces, to hit what remains of al-Qaeda and to protect Afghan forces when addressing the imminent danger of being overwhelmed by the Taliban.
This is what happened in Kunduz last October, for example, when American planes, supporting Afghan forces trying to retake the city from the Taliban, destroyed a Doctors Without Borders hospital, causing at least 43 deaths.
Now it will be easier to provide air support, although this is not a green light to go after the Taliban leader in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said. A few weeks ago, an American raid hitMullah Mansour, the leader of black turbans in the Pakistani Baluchistan, and some have suggested similar operations within Afghan borders. But implementing such a policy would be to put an end to any negotiation assumptions, which both Washington and Kabul are still, after all, hoping for.
It is unclear, however, whether the American generals have managed to convince Obama to review the U.S. plan to withdraw. For now, there are 9,800 American soldiers in Afghanistan (excluding contractors), and it is expected that by 2017 only about 5,500 will remain. On this, there may announcements shortly.
That would be too little and too late, say many in the Pentagon. Here in Kabul, there are many observers who believe that the numbers do not matter anymore. The military option has been tested for a decade and a half, with conviction. Even fierce conviction. With far greater financial resources and human resources (up to 150,000) than are available today.
Yet it has not led to anything except an increase in civilian casualties. After many years of occupation and military intervention, the Taliban are stronger than before. Strong enough to come out unscathed from two delicate leadership changes and to be able to penetrate even in areas long considered waterproof. The new rules of engagement will not change the course of the war, now lost.
That is why some suspect that Obama’s decision has other meanings: to send a message to countries — like Iran and Russia — which in recent months have approached the Taliban to tell them that the Americans are still in the game; a message also to the Taliban, to tell them they will not be left undisturbed militarily; and to the government in Kabul, so fragile that it needs, occasionally, a few pats on the shoulder.
At the bottom, Obama’s decision signals a personal failure: a president, Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has promised repeatedly to close the Afghanistan chapter; who has not decided which option to follow — more troops or more dialogue with the Taliban; and takes his leave from the White House, leaving unresolved a war that fell off the public radar, but it is still crucial. Obama has decided to leave the hot potato to his successor. Perhaps to Hillary Clinton, whom he has just endorsed.