Illustration by Jesse Lenz ; Photograph by Dima Gavrysh/AP

America’s Longest War

As the conflict in Afghanistan fades from the front pages, now is the time to pay attention.

After 12 years of fighting in the mountains on the Pakistan border and the fields of Helmand province, the United States is planning to withdraw from Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war. But that doesn’t mean the fighting is over.

U.S. forces first entered Afghanistan to find and capture Osama bin Laden on Oct. 7, 2001—just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks—and disrupt al Qaeda’s most important safe haven. It began as the “good war” with little controversy and a small number of troops with a specific mission. Then the Iraq war diverted American attention, resources and fighting power, dividing the nation as nearly 4,500 American troops were killed and 32,000 wounded. When that war ended in 2011 and President Obama vowed to end the war in Afghanistan, Americans turned their attention elsewhere.

But if there was ever a time to pay attention, it’s now.

Difficult Choices

This final year of the war in Afghanistan will be the most crucial. A bilateral security agreement between Washington and Kabul needs to be reached to allow some U.S. and NATO troops to stay behind to train the Afghan army and police and conduct targeted counterterrorism operations. And a presidential election set for April 5, 2014, will decide who replaces the iconic Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s strongman since 2002. All while bringing about half of the more than 50,000 U.S. troops home by February.

One of the sticking points is whether Karzai will agree to give American troops legal immunity, which in Iraq was a primary issue that derailed the deal to keep troops there past 2011. But Afghan negotiations have hit a bump in the road. Karzai not only wants the United States to guarantee Afghanistan’s security, he wants U.S. forces to hand over their intelligence to Afghan troops so that Afghans can conduct operations against al Qaeda and its operatives. It is one of many difficult choices leaders face before Americans can wipe their hands of the war.

“Our war may be ending, but the war in Afghanistan is only changing,” says Matt Sherman, a political adviser to ISAF Joint Command.

Signing a bilateral security agreement is priority No. 1 right now. The sense is that Karzai must ink a deal before he leaves office because the new president isn’t going to want his first act to be an agreement that cedes his nation’s sovereignty. Also, the political machine moves slowly in Afghanistan—after a likely runoff election, it could be next fall before a new leader is in place.

“What’s going to be so key is the transition of power after the elections, in my mind,” Sherman says. “How will the victors govern, and will Afghan security forces remain a force that’s able to defend their country? The issue is whether the people, the security forces and the government accept their new leadership. And equally important are the losing candidates. Will they accept defeat and rally their supporters to support a new government? It’s just going to be a very, very fragile time.” 

Far From Over

Although the war rarely makes the front page or the evening news anymore, the fighting is not over. Four U.S. soldiers were killed in early October by an IED in Kandahar. There are certainly fewer U.S. and NATO casualties now that they’ve stepped back to let the Afghans take the lead, but that doesn’t mean the fighting has abated—it just means the Afghans are taking the hit now with as many as 100 Afghan soldiers and police killed every week. And there is another fighting season to be fought, though many U.S. military officials wonder just how much of a lull in fighting there will be this winter with the election coming up in April.

During his speech at the United Nations in September, President Obama said the core of al Qaeda—the terror group that U.S. and NATO troops have been battling for more than a decade—has been dismantled. Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul says he agrees with that assessment, but his country still needs help battling the Taliban.

“[The] Taliban is not powerful enough in Afghanistan, but they continue to disturb our security,” Rassoul told CNN’s Situation Room. “One thing that we’re focusing on now is the peace process to convince those in Taliban to come to the peace process, join Afghanistan and stop fighting.”

Brig. Gen. Jim Blackburn, commander of the U.S. Army III Corp, says “there’s still a lot of work to be done.” But, he adds, “insurgencies live and die on perceptions, and perceptions have changed here.”

There has been a lot of progress in Afghanistan in recent years, according to Blackburn. “We’ve established the conditions for the Afghan forces to be able to repel threats against the government,” he says. “The Afghan security forces are not going to lose this war.”

One U.S. official in Afghanistan says he takes a longer view. “Are segments of the Taliban going to continue to pressure this government? Absolutely,” the official says. “Are they going to continue to attack? Absolutely. The question is will the Afghan security forces be able to stay together. That’s the greatest lever in my mind, in terms of long- term stability.” 

It remains to be seen how hard the Taliban will try to take over the government after 2014. “There will still be high-profile attacks in urban areas, and there will still be incidents in rural places,” the official says. “The issue is whether it poses a threat to the government in a real way. If the government and security forces remain cohesive and functional, the Taliban and other insurgent groups will then realize that they can’t return to power with force. They will then be forced to come to the reconciliation table if they wish to remain relevant and take part in the political process.”

And will the international community stay focused on Afghanistan after 2014 and keep its commitments to provide billions of dollars in aid? That’s something surely on Karzai’s mind as he negotiates the conditions for withdrawal.

Although most Americans think the war in Afghanistan is finished, this next and final year could be the most decisive of the 12-year conflict. And the fight against terrorism is far from over. As Blackburn puts it: “I’m not sure what ‘over’ is. I don’t think there will be an end to people conspiring against the United States of America.”