N.Y. Times: Obama signs classified order extending U.S. role in Afghan combat

WASHINGTON -- In a shift, President Barack Obama recently signed a classified order authorizing a larger mission for the U.S. military in Afghanistan next year, including a direct role in fighting, than was originally planned, The New York Times reported in an exclusive Friday night.

According to the newspaper, which cited "several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision," Obama's order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public this year.

The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions, the Times said.

In May, Obama said the U.S. military would have no combat role in Afghanistan next year, and that the missions for the 9,800 troops remaining in the country would be limited to training Afghan forces and to hunting the “remnants of Al Qaeda.”

The Times said the decision to change that mission was the result of a lengthy and heated debate between Obama's "top civilian aides" in the White House and "generals both at the Pentagon and Afghanistan."

The Times quoted one American official: “There was a school of thought that wanted the mission to be very limited, focused solely on Al Qaeda." But, “the military pretty much got what it wanted.”

The newspaper said that on Friday evening, a senior administration official insisted that American forces would not carry out regular patrols or conduct offensive missions against the Taliban next year.

“We will no longer target belligerents solely because they are members of the Taliban,” the official said, according to the Times. “To the extent that Taliban members directly threaten the United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan or provide direct support to Al Qaeda, however, we will take appropriate measures to keep Americans safe.”

In effect, Obama’s decision largely extends much of the current American military role for another year. The 13-year old mission, Operation Enduring Freedom, was set to end on Dec. 31.