A senior American general has proposed resuming offensive strikes against the Taliban, exposing a rift between the military and senior administration officials over the U.S. role in the war in Afghanistan, according to military officials.
Senior Pentagon officials complained that Gen. John F. Campbell, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan until earlier this month, broke with standard military procedure when he forwarded his proposal in recent weeks directly to the White House without the backing of Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter.
Campbell said he followed normal procedures in submitting his recommendations, which could draw the United States back into a broader air campaign against the Taliban.
The dispute comes as Afghan forces struggle to hold back resurgent Taliban forces, which have reclaimed some areas won at great cost during the U.S. troop surge. And many Taliban fighters think "they are operating from a position of strength," according to Campbell, speaking recently to troops at an American base in Afghanistan.
Any escalation of the U.S. role underscores the ongoing vulnerability of Afghan forces, and what is expected to be a violent 2016 summer fighting season, even as President Barack Obama attempts to meet his campaign promise of ending the war.
While Carter is open to enhancing support to Afghan forces and even targeting some Taliban leaders, "that doesn't mean that he's ready to veer in a different direction without a lot of careful analysis," a senior defense official said. "There's been no good, strong case for why doing that would change things in a way that's helpful."
Campbell, who is in the final weeks of a 37-year career in the U.S. Army, denied trying to go around his civilian bosses at the Pentagon. "Absolutely NOT," he said in an email. "I forwarded my recommendations through my chain of command, always have and this time was no different." An official at U.S. Central Command supported Campbell's account.
The proposals made by Campbell, before he left Kabul on March 2, include authorizing some U.S. air support for Afghan operations against the Taliban, conducting strikes against Taliban leaders, and placing American advisers with conventional Afghan forces closer to the front lines.
Campbell declined to discuss the specifics of his request, but a senior military official described it as a stopgap measure to give the Afghan forces time to build up their tiny air force and intelligence capabilities over the next several years. "The way you end this insurgency is you got to beat them down to a lower level of violence," said the military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning. "The Afghans won't have any real air power capability until 2017. ... We can take more of the edge off the enemy until their capabilities are fully online."
Currently, U.S. commanders can strike the Taliban only when they pose a direct threat to U.S. forces or when Afghan troops are in grave danger of being overrun. Campbell's request to broaden his authorities to strike the Taliban is one of the few levers at the military's disposal to increase pressure on militant leaders and drive them to the negotiating table for peace talks.
"We aren't going to get more people - politically there's no appetite because we are downsizing," Campbell said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. "So the only thing I can affect is my authority to strike different groups and my authority to provide different enablers to the Afghans."
Pentagon officials said they would wait until Gen. John W. "Mick" Nicholson Jr., who assumed command from Campbell, concludes his initial review, which will address the question of striking the Taliban and the feasibility of sticking with the White House's plan to cut U.S. force levels in half, from 9,800 to 5,500, later this year.
"Secretary Carter has not made a recommendation to the President on further changes to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan," Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in an email.
The White House said it is reviewing Campbell's request but made clear that the emphasis for the U.S. military should be on helping Afghan forces develop the capabilities they are lacking, such as an effective air force, rather than taking on new missions in Afghanistan
"The president expects that his military commanders at all levels will provide their best military advice and has remained open to recommendations from his military commanders regarding possible modifications of the U.S. military role," said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president's thinking. "Any potential consideration would balance the need to close any gaps in how we currently execute our mission with our efforts to continue to develop the capabilities of the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces."
During his first term, Obama is said to have felt boxed in by the military, including his top commander Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who were committed to a major increase in the size of the American force as part of a broader counterinsurgency strategy designed to drive the Taliban from many of its traditional havens.
In the end, Obama acceded to most of McChrystal's troop requests but put an 18-month time limit on the military surge that many believed sent a signal to the Taliban that it could wait out American forces.
Campbell's proposal is controversial in part because it would upend the White House's policy that the United States, in keeping with a 2014 cessation of official U.S. combat operations, is no longer at war with the Taliban.
Asked during congressional testimony last month if the United States views the Taliban as an enemy, Campbell offered a clipped response.
"I think the Taliban have killed many of my soldiers," he said.
Campbell's proposal, even if it is rejected by the White House, tees up the issue for the next president, who may have a more expansive view of how to wield American military force than Obama.
Earlier this year, the White House backed a request from Campbell for greater authority to strike Islamic State forces, which are battling both the Taliban and Afghan military forces in eastern Afghanistan.
But in a sign of the Obama administration's hesitancy to expand the war, the general's initial request - made in February 2015 - languished for months.
Campbell resubmitted the request in August, arguing that the Islamic State in Afghanistan had progressed from being a nascent threat to an "operationally emergent threat" that wanted to attack the United States and Europe.
"I think it was a no-brainer," Campbell said of his initial request to target Islamic State forces and their leadership. "Maybe we didn't make our case well enough. ... They were just starting to grow."
Campbell and other senior U.S. commanders have also been pressing the Afghans to make reforms ahead of this year's fighting season.
Many of Afghanistan's conventional army forces are tied down manning checkpoints throughout the country, which limits their ability to be used in offensive operations against the Taliban. Campbell and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have spent much of the past year pressing senior Afghan commanders and provincial governors to move the army forces off these fixed positions but have met resistance.
In many cases, the military checkpoints are the only official government presence in remote areas of the country. With Campbell's support, Ghani has replaced dozens of Afghan commanders who were found to have been corrupt or who failed to lead effectively.
In making his recommendations regarding troop levels and new latitude to strike the Taliban, Campbell said he has been careful not to try to foist policies on Obama. "I think we understand the world we live in," he said. "In my testimonies, I have tried not to get out in front of the president and not put him in a position where one side can use something against the other. You've got to walk that tightrope."