Symbolic 'end' to Afghanistan war overshadowed by new Obama plans

The US and NATO closed their combat command in Afghanistan Monday, but US troops will remain and recent developments raise questions about their role.

Massoud Hossaini/AP
International Security Assistance Forces take part in a ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday that ceremonially ended their combat mission in Afghanistan.

The United States military and NATO officially shuttered their combat command in Afghanistan in a little-noticed ceremony Monday, more than 13 years after the start of the longest war America has ever fought.

But what had long promised to be a major milestone in the war has been overshadowed by recent strategic changes on the ground. Even as troops lowered the flag of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) joint command – which was in charge of combat operations – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made it clear that the US will be jettisoning its original plan to cut forces to 9,800 by year’s end.

The Pentagon has announced that up to 1,000 more US troops than initially planned will stay in Afghanistan into 2015. In addition, recent reports have suggested that US forces will conduct “counterterrorism” operations rather than “combat” operations.

 The moves “will not change our troops’ missions or the long-term timeline for our drawdown,” Secretary Hagel said in a news conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan Saturday.

But they make the mission of US troops murky, many analysts say.

Originally, December was meant to mark the end of US combat operations in Afghanistan. After 2014, US forces had been slated to become trainers of Afghan troops, rather than fighters. Then came President Obama’s decision, reported last month, to allow US troops to continue to target Taliban fighters.

US officials insist that this is different from "combat" operations, and bristle at the notion that this is an expansion of the troops’ original post-2014 mission. US forces will now simply have a so-called “counterterrorism” mission alongside their training mission, they said.

This comes on the heels of a spate of recent Taliban attacks, though US officials insist that logistics, rather than an uptick in Taliban activity, is the reason for the extension of US troop deployments.

Still, US military officials have struggled to clarify what the "counterterrorism" mission will entail.

“While we won’t target Taliban for the sake – just merely for the sake – of the fact that they’re Taliban and quote unquote ‘belligerents,’ should members of the Taliban decide to threaten American troops or specifically target and threaten our Afghan partners in a tactical situation, we’re going to reserve the right to take action as needed,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, in a briefing with reporters late last month.

It is unclear how the Pentagon will define “threatening” actions that will allow US troops to attack.

On Saturday, Hagel said Mr. Obama “has provided US military commanders the flexibility to manage any temporary shortfall we might experience for a few months as we allow for coalition troops to arrive in theater.”

It is clear that there will be a specific number of US troops designated as “counterterrorism” forces to go after terrorist targets in Afghanistan, but US officials have declined to say what percentage of troops, or how many US soldiers, this will include.

“I don’t know,” Kirby said. “I don’t have the breakdown for you on that. And I don’t know that it’s all that relevant to begin with.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.