WASHINGTON – Despite heavy redactions in a 700-page Pentagon report that addresses continued confusion among U.S. special operators in Afghanistan on the rules of engagement, a Pentagon spokesman brushed off questions, saying the ROEs are as “clear as they can be right now for those forces,” according to a new report in Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin.
Pentagon press spokesman Peter Cook was responding to a G2 Bulletin question at a Pentagon news conference over the continued confusion surrounding ROEs, given that U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan for 15 years and have seen their mission shifted from a combat to a train-and-advise role.
The reality is that many of the 9,800 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan continue to come under direct attack by the Taliban, many of whom are beginning to link up with fighters from al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
The U.S. combat role in Afghanistan formally ended in the latter part of 2014. At one point, NATO forces, most being U.S. troops, numbered some 130,000.
Now, the 9,800 remaining NATO forces – again most being U.S. forces – are involved in a train-and-assist mission called Resolute Support and U.S.-only counterterrorism operations to attack al-Qaida and ISIS fighters – but not the Taliban, many of whose fighters increasingly are joining up with al-Qaida or ISIS.
U.S. forces, however, can only engage the enemy in self-defense – an element which is less defined if Taliban are attacking Afghan forces with whom U.S. forces are training and advising. Can they shoot back?
“The role of (U.S. forces under) Resolute Support are to train, advise and assist the Afghan forces,” Cook said. “The effort here is to try and allow Afghan forces to take control and secure their own country.
“They (Afghan forces) have made progress over the last few months toward that effort, certainly the Unity Government and the formation of the Unity Government was a positive step that has allowed Afghan security forces to take further advances,” Cook said. “But they need additional support.
“We’ve seen from the last year evidence of that,” he said, “and the purpose of those U.S. forces is to get them to a position where they can defend themselves, but not to be the lead in the fight, to play – be in a support role, and that poses – that is a challenge for – for our forces in terms of the – the training mission and – and getting Afghan forces to a position where they can defend themselves.”
In a combat environment where friendly forces are under attack, the line between advising and engaging in combat for U.S. forces becomes blurred.
This was the case recently in Iraq when a U.S. SEAL – Charles Keating IV – was killed in early May north of Mosul, Iraq, assisting Iraqi forces whose position had become overrun suddenly by ISIS fighters, forcing a SEAL team which included Keating to engage the ISIS fighters directly in a battle which was described as “ferocious” by fellow SEALs.
The SEALs apparently were surprised by the ISIS fighters, raising a separate question of whether there was a serious intelligence failure.
The 700-page Pentagon report raises – but doesn’t answer – the question how far U.S. forces can go in pursuing the Taliban in the fight.