International combat operations in Afghanistan, now involving mostly U.S. troops, are to come to a formal end at the close of 2014, at roughly 13 years by far America's longest-running war.
The families of the returning troops will be delighted to see them come home; the rest of the country seems largely to have forgotten about them. Let us not forget that we still have 68,000 troops there, battling the Taliban, including Taliban infiltrators in the regular Afghan army we are struggling to train.
The Obama administration is said to want to keep 10,000 troops there after 2014 to continue training Afghan regulars and to conduct anti-terrorist measures. Published accounts say that the 10,000 number was a split-the-difference figure between a high of 15,000 and a low of 6,000 recommended by Gen. John Allen, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan who is shortly due to be rotated out.
Whether the U.S. troops stay depends on signing a treaty with Afghanistan's mercurial president, Hamid Karzai. His freedom to maneuver may be limited by the April 2014 presidential elections, only the country's third such ballot. Karzai is term-limited and says he will abide by that limit.
But the narrow time frame raises the question of whether his successor would feel bound by any agreement that Karzai signed with the U.S. Already there is a major sticking point. The Afghans want the U.S. military to be subject to Afghan courts, an absolute deal-breaker as far as Washington is concerned. It's exactly the reason we no longer have a presence in Iraq.
Assuming the legal technicalities can be worked out, there's the question of how much good a residual force of 10,000 or even 15,000 troops can do. The actual training would be limited; it's unlikely our NATO allies would be of much help and some number of those troops would be committed to protecting the U.S. presence.
True, it would be good to have Special Operations units already on the ground, but given the situation in North Africa and the Mideast, and what is likely to be a much tighter Pentagon budget, there is also the question of whether these units could be deployed more usefully elsewhere.
It may require more focus than the U.S. is accustomed to, but given the lack of attention from Congress and the public, our departure from our longest war could be sloppy and inconclusive.
Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.