By Jim Miklaszewski, Courtney Kube and Alex Johnson
The Obama administration is considering a plan that would allow the U.S. military to strike more targets with fewer restrictions throughout Afghanistan, officials told NBC News on Thursday.
A senior U.S. official said active discussions are under way to give U.S. forces new authority to strike Taliban fighters simply for being part of the Taliban.
Under current authority, they may carry out strikes only in self-defense, to protect Afghan forces deemed to be in imminent danger or to target al Qaeda and ISIS.
A senior defense official said the military has been "advocating" to expand its mandate, noting that the Taliban made significant advances last year and that Afghan forces couldn't keep up.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
Targeting Taliban assets in general could help Afghan forces take back territory, particularly in Helmand and Oruzgan provinces, where the Taliban have shifted much of their effort recently, this official said.
The defense official said the discussion is related to a pending decision about how many troops the Obama administration will keep in Afghanistan after 2016. There are currently 9,800 U.S. troops there, but that's planned to shrink to about 5,500 by the end of the year.
The new authority wouldn't require an increase in U.S. troops, said the official, who added, "We expect a positive outcome."
In an open letter this week, five former military commanders in Afghanistan and five former ambassadors to Afghanistan urged President Barack Obama not to reduce the U.S. presence before he leaves office next January.
The signatories included retired Army Gens. John F. Campbell, who relinquished command of the war in February, and David Petraeus, who later became director of the CIA, and former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who was also President George W. Bush's ambassador to the United Nations.
The current rules have been in place since the Obama administration declared an end to the combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2014. But there is precedent for the plan under discussion: Earlier this year, the administration gave the U.S. military the legal authority to strike ISIS there.
Asked about the proposed plan Thursday, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said, "We are always looking at the authorities question and the best use of our troops."
Jim Miklaszewski is the chief Pentagon correspondent for NBC News. On 9/11, he was the first at the scene to report that the Pentagon had been attacked and has since led the network's coverage of the war in Afghanistan.
Since joining NBC in 1985, Miklaszewski was a White House correspondent during the Clinton and Bush administrations, covering President Clinton's transition from Little Rock, his many trips abroad including Moscow and the Middle East and his reelection. He was also an NBC floor reporter at the Democratic and Republican conventions in 1996 and 2000.
In the Bush White House, Miklaszewski reported on the Gulf War with Iraq, summits with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and the Bush reelection campaign in 1992.
Miklaszewski has logged considerable foreign experience with battlefront coverage of wars in Lebanon, El Salvador and the Falkland Islands. He also covered the United States air raid on Libya, and the "tanker wars" in the Persian Gulf.
Courtney Kube is a correspondent covering national security and the military for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Alex Johnson is a reporter and editor for NBC News based in Los Angeles.