America’s Longest War…Likely to Get Longer

U.S. and Afghanistan agree on draft pact allowing U.S. troops to remain

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Aref Karimi / AFP / Getty Images

Afghan police at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, where a car bomb blew up outside the site of this week's loya jirga slated to debate extending the U.S. military's troop presence in the country, on Nov. 16, 2013.

President Obama ordered a surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan in 2009, with a pledge that those fighting would all be out by the end of next year. Now—surprise!—he and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have hammered out a draft accord that would permit perhaps 10,000 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely.

That means the U.S. war in Afghanistan will probably slip beyond the 4,834 days (13 years, 2 months, 25 days) between Oct. 7, 2001, when the U.S. invaded, and Dec. 31, 2014, when all U.S. combat troops are due to leave. Those likely to be left behind will be there largely to train Afghan troops, hunt down and kill terrorists, and be targets for those same terrorists. That makes the U.S. war in Afghanistan more than three times the duration of its 1,346-day (3 years, 8 months, 7 days) participation in World War II.

But Iraq, increasingly slipping toward civil war, should offer Americans a cautionary tale about U.S. troops rushing for the exits from a war-torn country they created.

It’s tough for a war-weary American public to concede, but the costs paid in American blood (2,193 killed) and treasure ($700 billion) could well be spilled in vain if there isn’t some continuing U.S. presence in Afghanistan to keep al Qaeda and the Taliban in check. It also could give a shaky and corrupt Afghan central government, under a new president (Karzai is barred from seeking a third term), enough time to mature and send extremists packing.

The Afghan security force is nearing its goal of 352,000 troops and police, and has acquitted itself well during this year’s fighting season. “There’s still a lot of work that has to occur, but this year has been encouraging in terms of how they’ve fought the Taliban,” Army Lieut. General Terry Wolff, the Pentagon chief strategic planner, said at a confab sponsored by the Defense One website last Thursday.

The size of the U.S. troop contingent will be negotiated over the coming months. Part of its mission will be ensuring that the $4 billion NATO nations are slated to invest in Afghanistan annually is properly spent. U.S. troops, likely between 5,000 and 10,000, expect to be concentrated around the capital, Kabul, and the southern city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. Hundreds of German soldiers are slated to remain in the northern part of the country, while Italian troops will be in the west.

The sticking point in both Afghanistan and Iraq was protecting U.S. troops from local prosecution while on foreign soil. The U.S. argues that subjecting its troops to punishment under the Pentagon’s Uniformed Code of Military Justice is adequate. But outsiders—particularly those who view the U.S. military as invaders or occupiers—don’t always see it that way.

“Unfortunately, Afghanistan has witnessed a poor track record of the US forces during the past 10 years of their military operations,” Ajmal Shams, president of the Afghan Social Democratic Party, wrote in a column in the United Arab Emirates’ Gulf News newspaper Sunday. “The latter were either directly or indirectly involved in incidents where innocent civilians were impacted. These included drone attacks, night raids and unnecessary imprisonment.”

After the Iraqi government insisted that U.S. troops would have to be subject to Iraqi justice if they stayed beyond 2011, the U.S. pulled out.

Local Afghan leaders will begin debating the draft accord this week, and few changes are expected. Karzai has said he will abide by their decision. Because the so-called bilateral security agreement is not a treaty, it can be enacted by the Obama Administration without a formal congressional vote.

Then again, there’s always the chance that delaying the departure of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan will simply delay the inevitable.

The weekend gave a sense of what may be to come. On Saturday, a suicide car bomber killed 12, just outside the huge tent in Kabul where Afghan leaders are set to meet in this week’s loya jirga to debate the continued U.S. military presence. Thousands of Afghans gathered in Jalalabad Sunday to protest any extended U.S. troop presence in their nation, shouting anti-U.S. chants and burning U.S. flags. Local villagers found six Afghan government contractors, building police compounds, beheaded near Kandahar. Bombings killed one coalition soldier in southern Afghanistan and a civilian in northern Afghanistan.