The Enduring Military Presence in Afghanistan

Iran’s nuclear program and drone strikes in Pakistan are garnering a lot of attention in the news lately, which makes it  easy to forget that we are still at war in Afghanistan. And despite American’s wish to the contrary, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will last long after the combat mission ends in 2014.

The U.S. still has more than 90,000 troops in Afghanistan. Some of these troops will come home over the summer, but many more — 68,000, to be exact — will remain. An exact number of troops that will remain as the U.S. and allies transition to local security forces through 2013 and 2014 is still unclear.

Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has said that “we will need significant combat power in 2013,” while local security forces start to take on the primary lead in the combat mission. Recent comments from other U.S. leaders indicate that the military footprint in Afghanistan will last long after the combat mission is over.

Capt. John Kirby, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations, recently noted that “we … continue to believe that they’ll be some U.S. presence in Afghanistan and a U.S. military mission of some kind after the ISAF mission ends at the end of 2014…It will most likely be in some sort of training, advising and assisting capacity that could involve Air Force personnel and Air Force capabilities.”

Defense Secretary of Panetta, meanwhile, has spoken of the “enduring presence” of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Testifying at a recent hearing, Sec. Panetta said,

“I am confident that we’re going to be able to complete all of the transition in the areas that we have as part of General Allen’s plan, that we can do this because we have the Afghan army in place — but also because we continue to have ISAF in place as well to provide the support necessary.

So I think the combination of an Afghan army that’s able to do the job plus the kind of enduring presence that we need to have there as well in order to assure that the training and assistance continues. I think that combination does make clear that they’re going to be able to govern and secure themselves at that point.” [Emphasis added]

Neither the Pentagon nor the administration has publicly laid out post-2014 plans, but they are clearly leaving open the possibility of a significant military presence. Even though relying on military might has done little to prevent instability in Afghanistan and has drained significant resources from the american people.

Even as the media and public attention is drawn away from Afghanistan, the violence continues. The U.S. death toll reached 2,000 this past week. A recent attack on a U.S. outpost killed two Americans; another recent attack left six dead.

The economic costs of the war continue to add up too. Each week of war in 2012 costs about $2 billion. 2013 war costs will be about $90 billion — $1.7 billion per week. Already the ten-year costs of the war have topped $500 billion. If Panetta’s “enduring presence” means thousands of troops, we could be looking at the continuation of this trillion dollar war.

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