Never-ending war is officially never going to end

We’ve always been at war with Eastasia in Afghanistan. Well, OK, it only seems like we have. But that’s not changing any time soon:

The United States will halt its military withdrawal from Afghanistan and instead keep thousands of troops in the country through the end of his term in 2017, President Obama announced on Thursday, prolonging the American role in a war that has now stretched on for 14 years.

In a brief statement from the Roosevelt Room in the White House, Mr. Obama said he did not support the idea of “endless war” but was convinced that a prolonged American presence in Afghanistan was vital to that country’s future and to the national security of the United States.

This story is all over the cable networks as “breaking news,” but this has to be the slowest breaking news story in history. The Taliban’s capture of Kunduz at the end of last month made it quite clear that Afghan security forces aren’t ready to work without a net and that the Taliban hasn’t suffered much from its reportedly testy leadership transition earlier this year. The Taliban occupation of Kunduz is over now, by the way, but it’s over because the Taliban retreated in apparently good order, not because they were decisively defeated, and they retreated mostly because of damage that was being done by US air strikes and special forces, not because of anything the Afghan army did.

The plan is that the current US deployment to Afghanistan, about 9800 troops, will scale back to 5500 sometime in late 2016, but then will stay at 5500 indefinitely (i.e., until the next president decides what to do). Their mission will be to train the Afghan army and to collect intel on Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS figures, but that’s what they’re supposed to be doing now and yet they’re frequently forced into active combat as in Kunduz.

This seems like one of those “split the baby” kinds of decisions that will accomplish nothing but irritate everybody. You could make a solid case that it’s time to cut the cord even if it means Afghanistan falls back under Taliban control, because there’s no sense throwing more money and blood at the seemingly intractable problem of standing up an effective Afghan army and state, and because Afghanistan’s strategic importance for the US isn’t high enough. Conversely, you could also argue, based on empirical evidence, that Afghanistan’s strategic importance to the US is quite high, but if that’s your argument then 5500 US troops probably isn’t going to change the situation there and only really serves to put those 5500 men and women in constant risk.

The best we can hope for is that this indefinite deployment doesn’t lead to bombing any more hospitals and includes a complete change in how the US military deals with the sexual abuse of children by our Afghan pals. Both of those are important not just for moral reasons, but because those things damage the credibility both of the US and of the Afghani government, and make it that much harder to build Afghan institutions to a point where it finally does become possible for the US to leave without risking a Taliban takeover.

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