Staying in Afghanistan for another 10 years

Special to The Washington PostJanuary 2, 2014 

The White House’s push for another 10 years (at least) in Afghanistan – already the nation’s longest war – could make waves.

The administration is pushing for a security deal with the Afghan government that would allow U.S. troops to stay there until “2024 and beyond.” According to details obtained by NBC News last month, Afghan officials want 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops to stay, whereas U.S. officials are considering 7,000 to 8,000. These troops would not be barred from combat operations against any group deemed an al-Qaida “affiliate.”

By any definition, this is 10 more years of war, no matter what the White House says. If President Obama proposed sending 8,000 troops to Syria, where they would carry out combat operations, any rational person would rightly see that as launching a war. The same is true of another decade in Afghanistan, should the security pact be finalized.

Several members of Congress want to make this an issue. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and 11 other senators tried to include an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that asks Obama to consult Congress before agreeing to 10 more years of war. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid didn’t allow a vote, but the co-sponsors notably included Democrats – at least one, Mark Begich of Alaska, faces a tough reelection battle this fall – and Republicans.

A similar measure passed the House in June by a remarkable bipartisan vote: 305 to 121. Last month the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which helped steer through that measure, called the proposed Afghan security agreement “outrageous.”

The war in Afghanistan is extremely unpopular: The share of Americans who think the war wasn’t worth it reached 67 percent in a July Washington Post-ABC News poll. During seven years under President George W. Bush, 630 Americans were killed in Afghanistan. During Obama’s presidency, 1,671 troops have been killed, 127 of them this year – even as the war was supposedly winding down. That’s more than any year but one under Bush.

And the war’s goals remain unclear. White House press secretary Jay Carney said in 2012, “The reason why U.S. troops are in Afghanistan in the first place is to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al-Qaida.” But when I asked the Defense Department, in March of that year, about the last time U.S. forces killed an al-Qaida affiliate, the answer was 10 months prior. And The Washington Post reported last weekend on a new intelligence estimate that concludes any gains made by the United States could be lost quickly after the drawdown.

So we’re looking at a hugely unpopular war, continued troop deaths and a supposedly antiwar president pushing another decade of U.S. combat operations on increasingly restive members of Congress, including many in his own party.

The media have not given Afghanistan too much attention, and most Republicans have stayed quiet, feeling trapped between an aversion to seeming dovish and a public that dislikes the war. But these factors could converge in 2014 and finally make voters focus on why U.S. troops are still dying in Afghanistan.

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