- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2016

The White House said Friday that President Obama’s decision to expand airstrikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan doesn’t mean he will order more U.S. troops to remain in the country beyond the end of his presidency.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the mission of the 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, to be reduced to 5,500 by early 2017, hasn’t changed with the new authorization of more airstrikes. He said their mission is still focused on counterterrorism operations and training the Afghan security forces.

“It is now the responsibility, fully, of the Afghan government and the Afghan Security Forces to provide for the security of the nation of Afghanistan,” Mr. Earnest said.

U.S. forces who accompany Afghan troops on missions do “not have a combat role, per se,” Mr. Earnest said. He said the new authority to expand airstrikes would allow U.S. forces “to be more proactive in supporting conventional Afghan forces as they take the fight to the Taliban.”

“This means, in some cases, offering close air support,” he said. “Or it means, in some cases, accompanying Afghan forces on the ground or in the air. But when they’re accompanying, they continue to be remained focused on the ‘advise and assist’ mission that they’ve been carrying out for almost two years.”

Administration officials said the decision was made in recent days to expand the authority of U.S. commanders to strike the Taliban and better support and assist the Afghan forces when needed in critical operations, using the U.S. troops already in the country. There is a broad desire across the Obama administration to give the military greater ability to help the Afghans fight and win the war.

The decision comes as the Afghans struggle with a resurgent Taliban, particularly in the south. But the move is politically sensitive because Mr. 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.

The decision will give U.S. forces greater flexibility in how they partner with Afghan forces, but the new authorities must be used in selective operations deemed to have a strategic and important effect on the fight.

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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