Today marks the anniversary of the United States' 13-year war in Afghanistan, a conflict that nobody seems to remember is still being fought.
Operation Enduring Freedom began 12 years ago as a "just war," with a direct link to 9/11 and a clear enemy: the Taliban. From the get-go, the war never generated much controversy or debate, as the public whole-heartedly supported it. As time went on, the war became somewhat neglected, and the Taliban, who initially retreated, had time to regroup. In 2004, with U.S. resources directed at Iraq, the Taliban launched a violent guerrilla warfare campaign in Afghanistan, sending violence in the country skyrocketing. After an unsuccessful 2009 troop surge, a military death toll of over 2200, and countless civilians who remain unaccounted for, along with the public's lack of interest in general, the war languished. The Taliban are still entrenched in the Afghan countryside. Nobody even seems to want to talk about it.
But we should be talking about it.
For one thing, 54,000 U.S. troops are still fighting there, a higher number than the first seven years of the war. And these soldiers are dying there, too. In 2013 alone, 106 troops have died in conflict, a death toll higher than the first six years of the war. We should be talking about the safety of our soldiers.
We should also be talking about it because there's a chance that Afghanistan just might be a success story. The war in Afghanistan is a clear example of U.S. interventionism and attempted nation-building, and a victory here would be a huge boon to our credibility. In fact, several experts in the field, including U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and the International Crisis Group's senior Afghanistan analyst Graeme Smith, strongly believe that the country can stabilize. The key, they agree, is "continued engagement."
Unfortunately, that path seems less likely every day. The media has extensively documented the public's war fatigue, which is even more potent with Afghanistan. Politically, there's no more support for continued intervention. Bush ignored the war after Iraq became a bigger conflict, and after the troop surge, Obama's rare mentions of the war only involve plans to end it.
As of now, the U.S. plans to have only 34,000 troops and 100 coalition bases in the country by February, with a chance to plan for the return of all combat troops. The ideal situation would be for Afghan troops, currently in training, to take over all security positions by that time, but the reality on the ground indicates that this goal will not be met by the deadline. Many are also worried that the country will once again devolve into ethnic violence if the international presence is removed, as it did after the Soviet exit in the 1990s.
The U.S. has already spent countless resources on the war in Afghanistan, and we've also created an absolute mess in the country. To turn back now would be to put all of those resources and all of the lives lost to waste. In the words of Smith, "Afghanistan’s future depends on whether Western nations feel guilty enough about the mess they made to stay involved.”
It's unpopular and it's difficult, but staying involved in Afghanistan is the only way to make this situation right — and to help make Afghanistan whole again.