Washington: The US military likely will keep a slightly larger force in Afghanistan in 2015 than first planned and American troops will have authority to aid Afghan forces in combat if necessary, defense officials said Tuesday.
The United States may have to deploy hundreds of additional forces in coming months, beyond the 9,800-strong contingent announced previously, because of a shortfall in troop contributions from NATO members, officials told AFP.
Commanders were still working out the details but there was a shortage of roughly 400 to 700 NATO troops that would need to be filled temporarily by US forces through the winter months of 2015, said a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"This is just to bridge the gap," the official said.
The shortfall was a result of the delayed signing of a bilateral security agreement this year between Washington and Kabul, which also complicated deals with other NATO countries to deploy troops to Afghanistan starting next year.
The Obama administration has said the US combat mission in the country will end this year as the bulk of the NATO force withdraws.
The administration planned for a smaller follow-up contingent in the country to be focused on training Afghan soldiers and targeting Al-Qaeda militants.
But US national security officials last week revised the post-2014 mission to allow American troops to take action to help Afghan forces in battles with the Taliban insurgency.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said that "should members of the Taliban decide to threaten American troops or specifically target or threaten our Afghan partners in a tactical situation, we`re going to reserve the right to take action as needed."
Both the Pentagon and the State Department insisted the mission had not been expanded in anyway, but officials acknowledged that the question of combat support for Afghan troops had remained unresolved.
Under the decision, commanders would have the authority to call in air strikes or medical evacuations for Afghan forces in dire situations, officials said.