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
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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