The Trump administration is allowing the U.S. military to target Taliban leaders in what may signal a strategic pivot for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
The new strategy may have been previewed in a Feb. 26 strike on a major Taliban figure in the northern part of the country. The Obama administration shied away from targeting Taliban leaders in the latter half of President Obama’s second term, preferring instead to limit strikes to counter-terrorism targets. The administration instead pushed the U.S.-backed Afghan government to pursue political reconciliation with the insurgent group.
“The U.S. military wanted to telegraph a strong message that Taliban leaders are not safe in Afghanistan, no matter where they may be, and that they will be targeted so long as they continue to resist reconciliation efforts,” Afghan expert at the Wilson Center Michael Kugelman told Military Times.
Amidst the Obama administration push for reconciliation the Taliban gained more ground than at any time since the U.S. invasion in 2001, prompting major set backs for the Afghan government. The government is now engaged in a brutal fight with the Taliban on a front spanning hundreds of miles.
Both the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and the head of U.S. Central Command told Congress in recent months more U.S. troops would be needed to finish the mission, in an implicit swipe at past U.S. policy. “I do believe it will involve additional forces to make the advise-and-assist mission more effective,” U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel told Congress Thursday.
Army Gen. John Nicholson also said the U.S. would need “a few thousand more” troops to accomplish the mission. An increase in the number of U.S. troops coupled with more aggressive rules of engagement are similar to other changes the Trump administration has made in its counter-terrorism policies. Trump has increased the number of U.S. troops in the fight against ISIS, loosened rules of engagement for U.S. troops in Iraq, and allowed more airstrikes on al-Qaida targets in Yemen.
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