Will America Ever Leave Afghanistan?

Another "forever war" for the United States.

Since the war in Afghanistan formally ended at the close of 2014, hardly a week goes by without another report of the Obama administration considering revising its troop withdrawal timeline or that the current mission in Afghanistan is far from its putative non-combat advisory role. Indeed, just this weekend, during a surprise trip to the country, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said the administration is considering slowing down its troop withdrawal timetable.

Yet, during his State of the Union address, President Obama noted that Afghan forces “have now taken the lead” and touted America’s support for Afghanistan’s so-called “first democratic transition.” As the combat mission in Afghanistan ended last year, the president lauded the effort, asserting that the international coalition has “helped the Afghan people reclaim their communities, take the lead for their own security, hold historic elections and complete the first democratic transfer of power in their country's history." The administration has continually sought to portray post-2014 U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as an effort to train and advise Afghan forces to take the lead in securing the newly democratic Afghanistan. While the Obama administration publicly touts the success of the Afghan mission and the end of the war, deliberations over the contours of the post-2014 U.S. presence continue. All of this dissembling begs the question: is America’s longest war really over?

All indications suggest that it is not. For example, drone strikes have continued to target militants. Similarly, the New York Times reported earlier this month that there has been a significant uptick in night raids by American Special Operations forces in recent months; it’s difficult to imagine how these endeavors could be labeled anything other than “combat operations.” During testimony on Capitol Hill on February 12, U.S. General John Campbell, the top American commander in Afghanistan, told lawmakers that he wanted “greater flexibility” to keep more troops in the country. Similarly, on February 10, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration was “considering slowing its planned withdrawal from Afghanistan for the second time.” Just a week prior, Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he would consider revising (read: slowing down) the troop drawdown if conditions on the ground degrade. And while the administration considers slowing down the drawdown of the 10,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, tens of thousands of civilian contractors remain in the country to train and advise Afghan forces.

President Obama announced the drawdown plan in May 2014, prior to the prolonged electoral dispute between Afghan candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. The election controversy delayed the finalization of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had refused to sign. This delayed the implementation of the training mission and prevented firm troop commitments from NATO members. Last fall, after the BSA was finally signed, President Obama approved Pentagon-requested rules for 2015 combat operations – despite the BSA supposedly outlining a non-combat mission. The rules allowed for U.S. military leaders to approve combat operations using ground forces, manned aircraft and drones for counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, to protect U.S. forces, and to assist Afghan forces. These new rules of engagement clearly contradicted President Obama’s statement from May 2014, when he noted that “America’s combat mission will be over by the end of this year.” In December, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the United States would be keeping as many as 10,800 troops in the country.