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Harry Oppenheimer is a research associate for national security at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The U.S. military mission in Afghanistan has been subject to restrictive rules of engagement that prohibited targeting the Taliban directly unless they posed a threat to U.S. personnel, or an extreme threat to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Reportedly, this has changed. The recent news was the first major policy change for the Afghan War since General John Nicholson took over command exactly one hundred days before the announcement on March 2, 2016. Combined with today’s story that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bases will remain open in Afghanistan into 2017, Nicholson has latitude that would be the envy of his predecessors.
Flexibility over war plans is something that General John F. Campbell, Nicholson’s predecessor, called for publically in Senate hearings but could never achieve. After leaving Afghanistan, reports leaked that Campbell wanted to strike the Taliban directly and created enemies within the Department of Defense (DoD) in the process. Last week’s news makes such direct action possible. But there is a larger story as well—the White House appears to be responding to the concerns of the commander on the ground.
When the then–lieutenant general Nicholson testified at his confirmation hearings in January he reiterated the importance of coalition close air support (CAS) and logistical and intelligence enablers for the ANDSF. His written testimony outlined his understanding entering the position: “Although their capabilities continue to grow as DoD fields additional planned aviation and intelligence, security, and reconnaissance (ISR) enablers to the ANDSF, I’ve been informed that there are still many requests for coalition enablers.” However, he added, “in the near term, as their CAS capability grows with the fielding of the A29 and additional rotary wing assets, I expect those requests to diminish. Over the long term, the most important capability we can provide them are the systems and procedures we put in place to ensure their sustainability.”
This preliminary view came with a promise that in the first three months in command he would undertake a comprehensive review of the situation in Afghanistan and report back to senior leaders. This assessment would come, “after I have had the opportunity to get first hand insight on the situation in Afghanistan.”
Regrettably, the Taliban have been encouraged by a highly successful 2015 that saw them control more territory than they ever have since the 2001 U.S. invasion. Recently, they have had numerous victories in southern Afghanistan. The day before the announcement of the expanded U.S. role, the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction warned that Taliban gains jeopardized the efforts of the United States in the past decade.
Now President Barack Obama has eased the restrictions on airstrikes in direct support of ANDSF, something that he has been loathed to do despite numerous suggestions from former military leaders and national security experts. ABC News reports that Nicholson, “will now be allowed to determine when American forces should advise and assist conventional Afghan Army units, something that until now had only been allowed for American special operations forces working with Afghan special operations forces.” News that NATO bases will remain open despite planned troop reductions will give Nicholson further flexibility to gauge force size and placement.
While we cannot see Nicholson’s report to the president, many have speculated as to its contents. It is unlikely a coincidence that these policy changes come exactly one hundred days into his command. Here the proof may be in the pudding—Nicholson has seen the state of the Afghan military and the reduction of direct support he expected in March is clearly unrealistic. That is the only assessment one can imagine would push the administration to relax restrictions on a war it wanted over long ago.
Hopefully this is a sign of good things to come—the best military advice, in this case from the vastly experienced Nicholson on the ground, translating directly into policy changes authorized by the White House. Maybe Nicholson learned from his predecessor and went about advocating for new authority with greater political acumen. The upside is that is the influence he could have over the direction of the Afghan War and the trust he has been given by civilian leadership.