If President Obama has his way, the last U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan could be Americans born five years after 9/11. The administration has signed a pact to maintain a military presence there until 2024. After initially claiming the rumors of such a deal were false, the administration has since described this pledge as a means of providing "training" assistance to Afghan forces. The White House continues to issue mixed messages on the war, simultaneously insisting that the war is "over," but that U.S. troops will face "hard days ahead" in the conflict.
Obama has long claimed that he would bring an end to the war will end by 2014, which is still way too long to wait. As for sticking around for another 12 years, the very idea should be maddening to anyone. A president that makes such behind-the-scenes arrangements should be a target for censure or impeachment.
In a tempered society, kids do not grow up with an understanding that their older brothers and sisters are deployed abroad because of terrorist attacks that occurred nearly a quarter century ago. With Obama's recent commitment, this becomes our tragic trajectory, and it sadly appears that many anti-war Americans are so tired of opposing perpetual war that they have moved on to other priorities. In this game of chicken, the war party is winning simply through sheer perseverance.
Some will defend indefinite occupation. After all, the U.S. is still in Japan and Germany -- America hasn't been at war with either nation in 67 years! Perhaps Obama is simply following a proud tradition of not recognizing when our military has overstayed its welcome. To be sure, U.S. troop presences in Japan, Germany, as well as Korea and elsewhere, also deserve far more scrutiny than they ever receive.
Yet even these are not good examples of what we're seeing in Afghanistan. Most Afghans do not want U.S. troops there. Neither does the Afghan government, which the U.S. has fought with such determination to keep in power. Neither do the American people -- by huge margins. Two-thirds of Americans oppose the war effort, and only about a fourth still support it. Yet, Obama not only wants to stay the course, but now promises to extend the course. When the American population soured on Vietnam, could we imagine even Richard Nixon talking this way in 1972? "We'll be out by 1984 -- maybe."
And why is the United States even in Afghanistan? It had something to do with the 9/11 attacks, we were told, although even when the war started, this justification was a stretch. None of the hijackers were Afghans. They all hailed from U.S. allied countries -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. Most of the 9/11 planning occurred in Florida and Germany, not Afghanistan. We certainly know that there were organized al Qaeda cells in Afghanistan, but these were mostly dedicated to training ground fighters. The Taliban even offered up Osama bin Laden if the Bush administration provided evidence of his guilt! Instead of doing so, Bush invaded Afghanistan, by which time bin Laden was likely hiding in Pakistan. Since the war began, many thousands of Afghans have been killed, a million or more have been displaced from their homes, and the Taliban has nevertheless remained in control of large swaths of Afghan territories to this day, allowing the regime to occupy a powerful seat at the bargaining table with the Karzai government.
The Obama administration brags about killing bin Laden and says there are only about 100 al Qaeda left in Afghanistan. So why is the U.S. there? The Obama administration, like the Bush administration, says it is committed to the causes of liberty and democracy -- but the Karzai government, which claims to be democratically elected, has done very little to advance freedom and doesn't want the U.S. around. So why stay? The Obama administration says it intends to stamp out the opium trade. How can anyone take its rationales seriously?
If nothing else, this war has been effective at one thing: it gives cover for the steady erosion of human rights. Indefinite detention and surveillance -- is there reason to believe any of this will end so long as the U.S. is at war? When the government signs off on twelve more years of active intervention, it essentially ensures that the next two or three presidencies will continue to wage egregious attacks on our freedoms.
At Bagram Air Force Base, the U.S. has maintained a prison system that lacks even the shell of due process protections in place at Guantanamo. Under Obama, the number of detainees has risen five times. The prison camp will presumably be turned over to the Karzai regime this year, but it remains unclear what will happen to the prisoners. The U.S. will likely seek to maintain its ability to indefinitely detain suspected combatants with loose protections against prisoner abuse, so long as its war on terror continues.
Afghanistan is the centerpiece of Obama's foreign policy. Since war is the most serious of government undertakings, we could safely say this is as important a feature of his time in office as anything else. And it is a total disaster. Most Americans want it to stop, and yet he unabashedly prepares to sign us up for another 12 years. An engaged citizenry would typically make this sort of move a major election issue, but that looks doubtful as of now.