America’s Longest War

The Afghanistan war has become a forgotten war. If there was ever a time to pay attention, it’s now.

Soldiers with the United States Army's 3rd Battalion, 41st Infantry Regiment are seen on a joint patrol with the Afghan National Army prepare for a joint patrol with near Command Outpost Siah Choy on March 28, 2013 in Kandahar Province, Zhari District, Afghanistan.
National Journal
Stephanie Gaskell, Defense One
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Stephanie Gaskell, Defense One
Oct. 7, 2013, 7:38 a.m.

After 12 years of fight­ing in the moun­tains on the Pakistan bor­der and the fields of Hel­mand province, the United States is plan­ning to with­draw from Afgh­anistan, end­ing Amer­ica’s longest war.

U.S. forces first entered Afgh­anistan to find and cap­ture Osama bin Laden on Oct. 7, 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 at­tacks, and dis­rupt al Qaeda’s most im­port­ant safe haven. It began as the “good war” with little con­tro­versy and a small num­ber of troops with a spe­cif­ic mis­sion. Then the Ir­aq war di­ver­ted Amer­ic­an at­ten­tion, re­sources and fight­ing power, di­vid­ing the na­tion as nearly 4,500 Amer­ic­an troops were killed and 32,000 wounded. When that war ended in 2010 and Pres­id­ent Obama vowed to end the war in Afgh­anistan, Amer­ic­ans turned their at­ten­tion else­where.

But if there was ever a time to pay at­ten­tion, it’s now.

This fi­nal year of the war in Afgh­anistan will be the most cru­cial. A bi­lat­er­al se­cur­ity agree­ment between Wash­ing­ton and Ka­bul needs to be reached to al­low some U.S. and NATO troops to stay be­hind, train­ing the Afghan army and po­lice and con­duct­ing tar­geted coun­terter­ror­ism op­er­a­tions. And a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion set for April 5 will de­cide who re­places the icon­ic Ham­id Kar­zai, Afgh­anistan’s strong­man since 2002. All while bring­ing about half of the more than 50,000 U.S. troops home by Feb­ru­ary.

Kar­zai already has agreed to give Amer­ic­an troops leg­al im­munity, which in Ir­aq was a primary is­sue that de­railed the deal to keep troops there past 2010. But Afghan ne­go­ti­ations have reached a road bump. Kar­zai not only wants the U.S. to guar­an­tee Afgh­anistan’s se­cur­ity, he wants U.S. forces to hand over their in­tel­li­gence to Afghan troops so that Afghans can con­duct op­er­a­tions against al Qaeda and its op­er­at­ives. It is one of many dif­fi­cult choices lead­ers face be­fore Amer­ic­ans can wipe their hands of the war.

“Our war may be end­ing, but the war in Afgh­anistan is only chan­ging,” Matt Sher­man, a polit­ic­al ad­visor to ISAF Joint Com­mand, told De­fense One, in a tele­phone in­ter­view from Ka­bul.

Sign­ing a bi­lat­er­al se­cur­ity agree­ment is pri­or­ity num­ber one right now. The sense is that Kar­zai needs to ink a deal be­fore he leaves of­fice be­cause the new pres­id­ent isn’t go­ing to want his first act in of­fice to be an agree­ment that cedes his na­tion’s sov­er­eignty. Also, the polit­ic­al ma­chine moves slow in Afgh­anistan — after a likely run­off elec­tion, it would be next fall be­fore a new lead­er is in place.

“What’s go­ing to be so key is the trans­ition of power after the elec­tions, in my mind,’ Sher­man said. “How will the vic­tors gov­ern and will Afghan se­cur­ity forces re­main a force that’s able to de­fend their coun­try? The is­sue is wheth­er the people, the se­cur­ity forces and the gov­ern­ment ac­cept their new lead­er­ship. And equally im­port­ant are the los­ing can­did­ates — will they ac­cept de­feat and rally their sup­port­ers to sup­port a new gov­ern­ment?”

“It’s just go­ing to be very, very fra­gile time,” he said.

Al­though the war rarely makes the front page or the even­ing news any­more, the fight­ing is not over. Four U.S. sol­diers were killed this week­end by an IED in Kanda­har. There are cer­tainly few­er U.S. and NATO cas­u­al­ties now that they’ve stepped back to let the Afghans take the lead, but that doesn’t mean the fight­ing has abated — it just means that the Afghans are tak­ing the hit now with as many as 100 Afghan sol­diers and po­lice killed each week. And there is an­oth­er fight­ing sea­son to be fought. Though many U.S. mil­it­ary of­fi­cials won­der just how much of a lull in fight­ing there will be this winter, with the elec­tion com­ing up in April.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Bri­gadier Gen­er­al Jim Black­burn, com­mand­er of the U.S. Army III Corps, told De­fense One in a tele­phone in­ter­view from Ka­bul. But, he said, “in­sur­gen­cies live and die on per­cep­tions, and per­cep­tions have changed here.”

Black­burn said there has been much pro­gress in Afgh­anistan in re­cent years. “We’ve es­tab­lished the con­di­tions for the Afghan forces to be able to re­pel threats against the gov­ern­ment. The Afghan se­cur­ity forces are not go­ing to lose this war.”

Still, the threat of the Taliban is real and it re­mains to be seen how hard they try to take over the gov­ern­ment after 2014.

“Per­son­ally, I take a longer term view on this — are seg­ments of the Taliban go­ing to con­tin­ue to pres­sure this gov­ern­ment? Ab­so­lutely. Are they go­ing to con­tin­ue to at­tack? Ab­so­lutely. The ques­tion is will the Afghan se­cur­ity forces be able to stay to­geth­er? That’s the greatest lever in my mind, in terms of long term sta­bil­ity,” said one U.S. of­fi­cial in Afgh­anistan. “There will still be high-pro­file at­tacks in urb­an areas, and there will still be in­cid­ents in rur­al places. The is­sue is wheth­er it poses a threat to the gov­ern­ment in a real way. If the gov­ern­ment and se­cur­ity forces re­main co­hes­ive and func­tion­al, the Taliban and oth­er in­sur­gent groups will then real­ize that they can’t re­turn to power with force. They will then be forced to come to the re­con­cili­ation table if they wish to re­main rel­ev­ant and take part in the polit­ic­al pro­cess.”

And will the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity stay fo­cused on Afgh­anistan after 2014 and keep its com­mit­ments to provide bil­lions of dol­lars in aid? That’s something that’s surely on Kar­zai’s mind as he ne­go­ti­ates the con­di­tions for with­draw­al.

Al­though most Amer­ic­ans think the war in Afgh­anistan is over, this next and fi­nal year could be the most de­cis­ive of the 12-year con­flict. But the fight against ter­ror­ism is far from over. As Black­burn puts it: “I’m not sure what ‘over’ is. I don’t think there will be an end to people con­spir­ing against the United States of Amer­ica.”

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