Pentagon cancels announcement of change in U.S. Afghanistan policy

Story highlights

  • The Pentagon and White House have been debating airstrike policies
  • The discussion has been centered on whether to let U.S. warplanes strike more Taliban targets

(CNN)The Defense Department on Thursday canceled an announcement to reveal changes in the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan to increase the ability to attack Taliban targets, several officials familiar with the effort told CNN.

None of the officials agreed to be identified due to the sensitivity of the discussions inside the Obama administration, and the Pentagon declined to confirm any announcement was planned for Friday. None of the officials CNN spoke with report to Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
The Pentagon and White House have been debating for weeks not only about a change to U.S. troops levels in Afghanistan but whether to amend the current military authorities that restrict U.S. airstrikes against Taliban targets. Under the current rules, the U.S. military broadly has authority to strike any targets on the ground under three scenarios: to protect U.S. forces on ground, to go after the remnants of Al Qaeda and to protect Afghan forces when they are facing imminent danger of being overrun by the Taliban.
    The discussion inside the administration has been centered on whether to change those authorities so U.S. warplanes could now strike Taliban targets even if they do not pose a direct, time-sensitive imminent threat.
    "The question of authorities" is being looked at, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters Thursday. The problem for the Obama administration, however, is that if there is agreement with the Afghan government to proceed, it is essentially going back to conducting military operations on a more offensive level than before.
    It's not clear if Carter had proposed to the White House a change in U.S. troop levels. Currently, there are about 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The current plan calls for a drawdown to about 5,500 next year. The drawdown could be slowed within that timeframe to keep more troops in the country for as long as possible, but it's not clear that decision has been made.
    Broadly speaking, the U.S. believes the performance of Afghan security forces has improved, according to Brigadier Gen. Charles Cleveland, the chief spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition.
    But there are concerns that as the summer fighting season goes on, the Taliban will pose security problems in southern Afghanistan. "The Taliban has shifted their main effort down to Helmand," Cleveland said.
    But he noted the U.S. hasn't seen the full Taliban offensive it expected. Still, the re-emergence of the Taliban threat has led to this vigorous discussion inside the administration about what to do about it, officials tell CNN.