Officially, the U.S. is no longer at war in Afghanistan. But buried in the U.S. Central Command investigation of the mistaken aerial attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital last October is an admission, that at least in this instance, the military doesn't always follow its publicly stated restrictions on offensive combat operations in Afghanistan.
Since the official end of the combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2014, U.S. forces have been authorized to conduct airstrikes in only three limited and specific circumstances; to protect U.S. troops on the ground, to go after remnants of al Qaeda, and to rescue Afghan forces who were in imminent danger of being overrun.
But in the report, released Friday, along with the announcement that 16 service members would be punished administratively but none would be court-martialed, it is clear that the U.S. special operations commander on the ground was so intent on helping his besieged Afghan allies that he bent the rules in order to employ preemptive U.S. airpower to help "soften" a target in advance of a raid against the Taliban. Pre-emptively targeting the Taliban falls outside the parameters of the official advise-and-assist mission in Afghanistan.
It's happening because the U.S.-trained-and-equipped Afghan force desperately needs close-air support to defeat a resurgent Taliban, but has no air force to speak of and won't for at least three more years, according to U.S. commanders.
The air support policy is under review, and awaiting a recommendation by the new Afghanistan commander, Gen. John "Mick" Nicholson, who took over last month.
Nicholson could ask President Obama to take the gloves off, allowing offensive strikes against Taliban targets. But that would require a tacit admission from the White House that Afghanistan is another war, like Iraq, the president has tried and failed to end.
While a series of errors attributed to the "fog of war" was to blame for the Oct. 3 misidentification of the medical facility, the errant attack began with a fateful decision by a U.S. commander to call for an offensive airstrike, an order the investigation later found exceeded his authority.
In the aftermath, senior commanders appear to be contradicting each other when it comes to the propriety of that airstrike.
The Kunduz report concluded that the Afghan forces who needed protection were more than five miles from the target, and not under fire.
The report therefore determined that calling for the AC-130 gunship to engage the target was "in direct violation of [Operation] Resolute Support tactical guidance," and that there was was "no reasonable argument" that the airstrike was needed for self-defense.
The new U.S. Central Command chief, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, asserted at the Pentagon briefing Friday that the unnamed ground commander believed the strike qualified as defensive. "He considered himself and by extension, the Afghan forces that were in his proximity and that he was supporting as part of his force."
When asked if commanders are getting around the limitation by embedding U.S. forces with them, then authorizing the strike under the self-defense authority, Votel said that didn't happen in Kunduz.
"No, I don't think so. And I would not — I have not reached that conclusion, and I would not reach that conclusion at this point. I think our commanders attempt to apply the the rules of engagement and the authorities that are given to them in exactly the right way that they're intended.
"I would not tolerate, frankly, our commanders trying to use go-arounds to apply fires in ways other than they're intended."
But because so much of the Afghanistan "advise and assist" mission is being conducted by U.S. special forces in the shadows, it's impossible to know where the line is being drawn.
Unlike Iraq, where a daily tally of airstrikes is released to the public, in Afghanistan, aerial attacks are acknowledged only when something goes wrong. That also happened in January, when Army Staff Sgt. Matthew McClintock was killed and two fellow Green Berets wounded when their "assist" mission put them directly in the line of fire.
Jamie McIntyre is the Washington Examiner's senior national security writer, and has covered the U.S. military since 1992.