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2011 Reflections: What happened to the US debate on Afghanistan?

Seven Monitor correspondents reflect on the world's hot spots. In this installment, Ben Arnoldy is bothered by silence on the war because, unlike him, US troops can’t choose when to come home.

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But the date seemed more important for those outside Kabul: the Taliban and the American people. The Taliban have shown little urgency in a peace process, perhaps calculating that they just need to wait until 2014, when the US says it will leave.

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And in the US, the issue of ending the war has lost its potency because of a similar perception that it's winding down anyway.

And so Afghanistan has become something of a zombie war – a dead conflict that violently carries on. More than 400 US troops were killed there in 2011.

Rationale for keeping US troops

What originally animated this conflict was the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Taliban regime failed to immediately turn over Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. The US overthrew the government but failed to get Mr. bin Laden until this past May. Even then, his death didn't end the war.

For journalists covering Afghan­istan, it's at times challenging to figure out the latest US reasons to remain there. Here are the rationales given to me most often in the field – all of which deserve more debate:

1. Make peace with the Taliban. Diplomats, in particular, talk up the importance of this in order to end the vicious cycle of war in Afghanistan. But 2011 has brought one setback after another to the peace process, from a Taliban imposter fooling NATO into thinking he was a top Taliban peace negotiator to a suicide bomber who killed Mr. Karzai's peace envoy by detonating an explosive hidden in his turban.

At press time, however, a breakthrough seemed possible: Reuters reported that after 10 months of talks, the US and the Taliban may be close to taking initial confidence-building steps necessary for more serious political talks to start.

2. Rid nuclear-armed Pakistan of militants. Military strategists suggest the Afghan war is crucial for cleaning up Pakistan – a country with nuclear weapons and one that plays host to a who's who of militants. The US wants Pakistan to end militant havens or to allow the US to do it for them.

But it's worth a more serious cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the terrorists left in Pakistan remain a major threat to the US homeland.

3. Reserve US jobs. Occasionally, a cynic would point out that the war doubled as a massive jobs program. As an American contractor in Kabul once confided to me over breakfast: "I am having a good war."

Should the war run for three more Christmases? That question can be answered in various ways. But as someone who has just returned to the US, I simply want it to be asked here.

As I enjoy the peace of this holiday season, so removed from the conflict zone I recently experienced, I remind myself that we should spare a few thoughts for those who won't be home for the holidays – and consider why exactly that is.

IN PICTURES: Afghanistan in winter

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