Defense chief confirms new rules for troops in Afghanistan

Defense chief confirms new rules for troops in Afghanistan
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Defense Secretary Ash Carter confirmed Friday that President Obama has approved new authorities for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, touting the change as a “better way” to use troops.

“This makes good sense. It’s a good use of the combat power that we have there,"  he said at a Defense One event.

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Reports surfaced Thursday night of the changes. The new rules give U.S. forces a greater ability to accompany conventional Afghan forces that are fighting the Taliban, according to the reports.

The changes also allow more close air support, the reports say, which could lead to more airstrikes against the Taliban.

The changes come just after the top U.S. commander in the country, Gen. John Nicholson, completed a 90-day review he started when he took command.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan have largely refrained from targeting the Taliban since the combat mission officially ended in 2014.

Since then, rules of engagement limited strikes in Afghanistan to the three circumstances: to protect U.S. ground troops, to target al Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or to protect Afghan forces when they are in imminent danger of being overrun by the Taliban.

Defense hawks been arguing for months that the rules of engagement should be expanded in the face of a resurgent Taliban and a struggling Afghan military.

Carter pushed back on any notion that expanded authorities mean a change in mission.

“Obviously, our mission is the same, which is to help the Afghans maintain control of the country and to avoid having a counterterrorism challenge once again from Afghanistan,” he said.

Nicholson’s review was also to assess troop levels in Afghanistan. Right now, there are about 9,800 U.S. troops in the country, with plans to drop that force to 5,500 by the end of the year. 

Nicholson was largely expected to recommend keeping more troops in the country, but no word has come on whether troop levels will change.