The Obama administration recently relaxed the rules of when U.S. aircraft could conduct airstrikes in Afghanistan. This expanded authority to conduct airstrikes most likely occurred after recommendations from General Nicholson – the new commander of U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan. Up until recently air support could only be used against al-Qaeda , the Islamic State (in Afghanistan), or to defend U.S. troops in contact with the enemy.  The defense of U.S. troops on the ground allowed strikes against the Taliban as well as al-Qaeda and ISIS. Usually, in terms of defense of U.S. forces on the ground, this referred to U.S. special operations forces (SOF) that were advising the ANA’s Special Operations Kandaks (SOKs) [1] or the Ministry of Interior’s (MoI) special police units. Many of these specialized Afghan units have SOF advisors at the tactical level.

Of course there are some parameters to the relaxed guidance on airstrikes against the Taliban. The air support has to provide a strategic effect. An example of strategic effect would be to prevent a catastrophic failure of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). A catastrophic failure could be the decimation of an Afghan National Army (ANA) infantry company or the loss of a governmental district center.

The first series of strikes against the Taliban was carried out in recent days in southern Afghanistan. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of information about these new air strikes – the Department of Defense and Resolute Support Headquarters (the command in Afghanistan) is relatively sparse in its comments and in answering questions on this topic. [2]. Most likely the airstrikes were in support of U.S. special operations forces advising the Afghan Commandos or special police units. Operational security most likely has caused the spokesmen from DoD and Resolute Support to be very vague on the air strikes – and with good reason.

General Nicholson has been the commander of Resolute Support for over 90 days and he has provided the chain-of-command his recommendations on the way forward in Afghanistan. Certainly he advocated for an extension of the U.S. commitment to continue the train, advise, and assist mission in Afghanistan into 2017. He most likely pressed for the relaxed rules for air support allowing his combat aircraft to target the Taliban even when U.S. forces were not threatened on the ground. Critics comparing the use of U.S. airpower against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and of U.S. airpower against the Taliban have noted that there is a huge disparity. The numbers of sorties flown in Iraq and Syria far surpass those flown in Afghanistan. Perhaps this disparity will change in the coming months with a positive effect on the success of the Afghan security forces.

[1] A kandak is the Afghan word for battalion, usually consisting of about 700 or more personnel.

[2] See a recent press conference held by Peter Cook (Pentagon Press Secretary) held on June 27, 2016.

Image by Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen of A-10 getting in position to conduct aerial refueling over Afghanistan, August 18, 2011.