Barack Obama promised American voters that the US would end its operations in Afghanistan by next year, but NBC News reported last night on a new plan to continue training and support operations for another decade. The agreement being worked out with the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul would keep as many as 15,000 troops in the theater until at least 2024. In fact, the new agreement would have no timetable for full withdrawal at all:

While many Americans have been led to believe the war in Afghanistan will soon be over, a draft of a key U.S.-Afghan security deal obtained by NBC News shows the United States is prepared to maintain military outposts in Afghanistan for many years to come, and pay to support hundreds of thousands of Afghan security forces.

The wide-ranging document, still unsigned by the United States and Afghanistan, has the potential to commit thousands of American troops to Afghanistan and spend billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars.

The document outlines what appears to be the start of a new, open-ended military commitment in Afghanistan in the name of training and continuing to fight al-Qaeda. The war in Afghanistan doesn’t seem to be ending, but renewed under new, scaled-down U.S.-Afghan terms. …

The copy of the draft — the full text is available here — is dated July 25, 2013. As a working draft, it is particularly revealing because it shows the back and forth negotiations, as U.S. and Afghan officials added words and struck out paragraphs. The changes are marked by annotations still revealed in the text. The document is a work in progress. US officials say there have been more changes since July. The draft, however, does indicate the scope of this possible agreement with major implications for Washington, Kabul, U.S. troops and the continuation of America’s longest war.

Taken as a whole, the document describes a basic U.S.-Afghan exchange. Afghanistan would allow Washington to operate military bases to train Afghan forces and conduct counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda after the current mission ends in 2014. For that foothold in this volatile mountain region wedged between Pakistan and Iran, the United States would agree to sustain and equip Afghanistan’s large security force, which the government in Kabul currently cannot afford. The deal, according to the text, would take effect on Jan. 1, 2015 and “shall remain in force until the end of 2024 and beyond.” It could be terminated by either Washington or Kabul with two years advance written notice.

The driving force behind this effort is almost certainly the eruption of al-Qaeda in Iraq after the full American withdrawal in 2010. Iraq also wanted American troops to remain with some changes in the relationship, but the Obama administration booted the negotiations and stuck with full withdrawal. That left AQ the opening to not just continue operations against the government in Baghdad but also to spread its operations to Syria and perhaps beyond. After nearly getting wiped out by the US military “surge” in 2007-8, AQ has bounced back to be a regional threat again.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising to see the White House looking for ways to stay on the ground in Afghanistan. The security forces there aren’t as capable as native Iraqi forces were in 2010, and they will need more help to fight off the Taliban and AQ. However, the Afghans want American troops to be restricted in operations, which makes sense politically for Karzai. Whether or not that makes sense for the US depends on what those restrictions will be. Eventually, as in Iraq, we’d want domestic forces to conduct operations with American logistical support, but it’s questionable when that will be practical.

This could just be a way to force the Taliban into serious negotiations, of course. So far they’ve mostly waited for us to leave. If it looks like we’re staying for good, that might prompt them to talk with Karzai about a political solution to the tribal civil war and an end to hosting terrorists in Afghanistan.

However, this will be a tough sell at home. The discussion on Morning Joe today shows why. If we’re waiting for the Karzai government to be able to secure itself, then 2024 might not be a realistic goal, either. This could end up being a Forever War, especially at this low level of resourcing.

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