— -- President Barack Obama has approved broader authorities for the U.S. military in Afghanistan that will on occasion, allow American forces to accompany conventional Afghan troops and possibly allow airstrikes in support of Afghan troops to help them seize a battlefield advantage.
A senior Defense official says the move will allow the U.S. military to proactively help the Afghan military in its fight against a resurgent Taliban.
"The President has approved providing additional flexibility to our forces already deployed in Afghanistan to carry out our current strategy," the senior Defense official told ABC News. "These new, limited authorities are modifications of our ongoing Train, Advise, and Assist mission that we believe will allow us to better support the Afghan National Defense Security Forces, maintain our counterterrorism mission, and protect our forces."
The official stressed, "This is not a blanket order to target the Taliban."
According to the official, the broader authorities will allow U.S. military commanders "to maximize the use and effectiveness of our troops supporting the Afghan forces in those select instances in which their engagement can enable strategic effects on the battlefield."
Under the new authorities, U.S. forces will be able to "proactively support Afghan conventional forces" with more firepower, "especially through close air support" and by accompanying and advising Afghan conventional forces, said the official.
Most of the 9,800 U.S. military forces in Afghanistan are serving in a training mission known as "Resolute Support" that for the most part is conducted on large bases. About 1,000 of those forces are in Afghanistan for a counterterrorism mission known as "Freedom's Sentinel" that targets al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated forces in Afghanistan.
General John Nicholson, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, will now be allowed to determine when American forces should advise and assist conventional Afghan Army units, something that until now had only been allowed for American special operations forces working with Afghan special operations forces.
The current airstrike authorities in Afghanistan do not allow airstrikes to strike Taliban forces just because they are members of the Taliban.
Airstrikes could only be used in self-defense in what are known as "in extremis" situations when Afghan forces are about to be overrun or if there is an imminent danger to U.S. and Afghan forces and for counterterrorism missions. The rules were put in place after the U.S. and NATO ended their combat missions in Afghanistan and transitioned to a training mission.
Now close air support for Afghan troops will be possible on specific occasions that might provide an opportunity for them to seize a strategic advantage on the battlefield.
The official called the new authorities "a doubling down on what has produced results" in the parallel "Freedom's Sentinel" mission in Afghanistan.