While US Troops Are Under Fire, Lawyers Debate If They Can Use Force

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Saagar Enjeti White House Correspondent
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U.S. troops assisting their Afghan counterparts in the fight against the Taliban must consult lawyers before firing on the enemy, Mike Phillips of The Wall Street Journal reports.

Phillips described an instance when U.S. Green Berets were on the ground with suspected Taliban gunmen nearby. A U.S. spy plane could see the figures, but requests to engage the suspected terrorists languished up and down the U.S. chain of command for hours. Eventually the Green Berets had to leave without accomplishing the clearing mission, the gunmen then entered the village to plant the Taliban flag atop the village flagpole.

The battlefield often does not keep pace with U.S. legal inquiries up the chain of command, greatly complicating the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Ostensibly the United States mission in Afghanistan is to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Security Forces. This military mission is part of a broader NATO goal of securing a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan led by the current U.S.-backed Afghan government.

Afghan forces, which the U.S. assists in a bid to secure the country, are in a brutal war against the Taliban. A senior U.S. Green Beret, however, told Phillips, “We’re not at war with the Taliban.” U.S. commanders throughout Afghanistan often question how they are supposed to assist Afghan defense forces gain control of the country if they are unable to kill the major obstacle to stability.

Since the end of the NATO combat mission in Afghanistan, the Taliban has gained more ground in Afghanistan than at anytime since the U.S. invasion in 2001. The Obama administration’s previous rules of engagement in Afghanistan restricted the U.S. from firing unless U.S. forces were directly in harms way or if the Afghan government faced a “catastrophic failure,” such as the loss of a major city. Even these rules of engagement could not stop the Taliban from seizing the major of city of Kunduz in September 2015.

General John Nicholson, commanding general of NATO forces in Afghanistan, requested President Barack Obama loosen the U.S. rules of engagement in the fight against the Taliban. Under the new rules of engagement, the U.S. can accompany Afghan forces when they’re offensively pursuing the Taliban to achieve a “strategic gain.”

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