Ironically, the Afghan government is not the issue at hand. One of the main concerns is the possible restrictions imposed by our own government on the military in Afghanistan beyond the current authorities granted for 2014. The success of the campaign in the 2014 fighting season was in large part due to the record number of kinetic strikes that removed high valued targets (HVTs) and high valued individuals (HVIs) from the battlefield, including Al Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents (AQAA), high profile attack (HPA) networks such as the Haqqani Network and Tekrit-e-Taliban Pakistan, and the Taliban working in concert with AQAA and HPA networks that are engaged in direct hostilities against the United States and Afghanistan.
In a combat zone, or area of active hostilities (AAH), the United States military receives its standing rules of engagement (SROE) from the President and Secretary of Defense, which provides “parameters within which the commander must operate in order to accomplish his or her assigned mission.” Within the AAH, the SROE includes self-defense.
The use of national and collective self-defense are critical to defeating the enemy “upstream” from a spectacular attack, which includes disrupting an imminent attack on a government building, assassination plot on political or military officials, or causing a vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) from exploding in the entry points of US and Afghan bases that have the capacity to inflict a large number of casualties. Any of these events, especially if there were a high number of US casualties could have a catastrophic impact on the perception of the American population and the media on our involvement in the region.
The importance of the national and collective self-defense is that it provides the US military the authority to protect not only our own interests, but also those of the Afghan government and military. National self-defense is described as “the act of defending the United States, U.S. forces, and, in certain circumstances, U.S. citizens and their property, and U.S. commercial assets from a hostile act, demonstrated hostile intent or declared hostile force.”
Collective self-defense includes “the act of defending non-U.S. citizens, forces, property, and interests from a hostile act or demonstrated hostile intent . . . [which is] generally implemented during combined operations.” The SROE is paramount to our efforts in protecting not only our own forces, but also our partners, which becomes an even more important authority to retain in 2015 as US forces continue to draw down to the established number of 9,800 US military personnel authorized to remain beyond the new year.
Using the exit strategy in Iraq as a model for failed policy, we must learn from our mistakes and prevent Afghanistan from deteriorating into an unstable state. During the US military’s departure from Iraq, the Obama administration was unable to secure a status of forces agreement with the Maliki administration that would allow a limited number of US troops to remain in Baghdad and other large cities to allow our special operations forces to continue to remove terrorists from the battlefield. This shortcoming prevented our special forces from continuing their advise and assist role, and removed instructors and mentors required to prevent the erosion of the Iraqi military.
The US military will inevitably be involved in rebuilding the Iraqi military now that ISIL forces have ransacked numerous military bases and airfields. With mission creep continuing and almost 3,000 troops now authorized to flow back into Iraq under the same framework that should have been established beyond retrograde operations at the end of 2011, the US military, treasury, and will of the population cannot afford to see Afghanistan deteriorate as Iraq did. The authorities needed within the policy that pulled us out of Iraq prior to their military being tested and competently trained for the long term set their forces up for failure when ISIL became a legitimate threat to their sovereignty.
Their eroded will to fight, poor logistical support, and low morale caused them to quickly retreat and abandon their positions when ISIL went on the offensive. The proper authorities and a solid policy for the future of US military operations in Afghanistan post-2014 can prevent the same erosion from occurring. The Afghan security forces are capable and are now proven with the past few years of experience at the frontlines rather than allowing the US forces to assume all the responsibilities and risk. However, they still need to grow, they still need our assistance, and they need our ability to maintain pressure on our common enemies by continuing the campaign of conducting kinetic strikes in order to prevent catastrophic losses to both US and Afghan forces.
A definitive solution to the current debate over authorities for the US military and the policy being debated within President Obama’s inner circle and the National Security Council is that Afghanistan remains an Area of Active Hostilities rather than an ODTAAC where more restrictive policy would apply. The President himself admitted, in a speech at the National Defense University, that some of his administration’s new guidance was more restrictive than before. It is not conducive to the fast, judicious responses required to manage the current fight in Afghanistan, which are being properly executed under the leadership of General Campbell as the commander of the Resolute Support Mission.
The US military must continue to be able to not only protect its own troops and infrastructure, but also its Afghan counterparts through the use of national and collective self-defense, and that we, the United States, should not limit ourselves by eliminating anything that the Afghan government and President Ghani is willing to allow to achieve the desired end state of the campaign. The continued drawdown of American troops should be conditions based and not based on a preconceived timeline that provides the enemy a glimmer of hope to just “wait us out.” Despite the declared “end to combat operations,” while US troops remain in harm’s way, they need the proper authorities to protect both themselves and their partners to prevent catastrophic failure as we move into our fourteenth year of war.
Moving forward into 2015 and beyond, in order to retain the progress the US military has made with their Afghan partnered forces, the authorities needed should include the use of unilateral and combined operations, night raids, entry into Afghan compounds for the purpose of conducting thorough searches of areas that could be of intelligence value, and the conduct of kinetic strikes in support of and for the protection of both US and Afghan forces. Anything less than this is an open invitation to open the floodgates of islamic extremism to resurface into the region, including Al-Qaeda and the rising threat of the Islamic State.
Americans should pray for sound decision-making in the waning hours of our longest war. Hope at this juncture of the Global War on Terror many deny is taking place should lie on paper in ink, not on teleprompters and the concern with legacies. No options should be taken off the table preventing the security situation in Afghanistan from being flushed down the toilet like Iraq as we sat idly by. The future of the Afghan people and the morale of the US military depend on it.
Major Mike Kelvington grew up in Akron, Ohio. He is an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army with experience in special operations, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency operations over twelve deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, including with the 75th Ranger Regiment. He’s been awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor and two Purple Hearts for wounds sustained in combat. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and holds masters degrees from both Princeton and Liberty Universities. The opinions expressed above are his own, and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
 Judge Advocate General School, “Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction 3121.01B, Chapter 5: Rules of Engagement,” JAGCNet, last modified November 20, 2014, accessed November 26, 2014, https://www.jagcnet.army.mil/DocLibs/TJAGLCSDocLib.nsf/xsp/.ibmmodres/ domino/OpenAttachment/doclibs/tjaglcsdoclib.nsf/8400639488825BD385257549006019A4/Body/Chapter%205%20%20ROE.pdf, 86.
 Ibid., 87.