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Afghan War is over (except that it's not)

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani walks with U.S. Secretary

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani walks with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, right, down a red carpet during an arrival ceremony at the Presidential Palace, Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: AP / Mark Wilson

In a ceremony in Kabul Sunday, the U.S. commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan grandly proclaimed the "end" of the 13-year combat mission against the Taliban and other terrorist foes. But in doing so, he emphasized that NATO personnel will continue to train home-grown Afghan forces taking up the actual fighting.

President Obama in a written statement declared, "Our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion." And in Kabul, a leading NATO official optimistically declared the beginning of "a new chapter for NATO as an enduring partner of the Afghan government."

However, the war obviously has not ended, and Obama acknowledged the obvious in adding that Afghanistan is still "a dangerous place." The American military, in its annoying penchant for pasting cheerleading labels on its endeavors, dubbed this ongoing mission "Resolute Support."

With such window-dressing does the American commitment to defeat the Taliban and other assorted enemies drag on.

Just what practical purpose is served in declaring an end to the U.S combat role in Afghanistan defies normal comprehension. Unless it allows Obama to say that the United States has achieved its fighting mission there, and now it will just be lending a helping hand.

That seems to be the same rationale for the president's determination that there be no more American "boots on the ground" in the region's various wars -- meaning no soldiers in actual combat roles as defined by U.S. policy and rhetoric.

In 2009, 140,000 foreign troops were serving in Afghanistan; that number is now about 17,000. Up to 13,500 will remain through next year, and 5,500 Americans will stay longer in training and counter-terrorist roles. But it's safe to assume that those Americans in certain circumstances will still be in harm's way, no matter what label is placed on their support and protection responsibilities.

Barack Obama, from the start of his drive for the presidency in 2008, characterized the American-conceived invasion of Iraq as "a dumb war," and made clear his goal of extricating the United States from it and from Afghanistan as well.

As president, Obama has harped on the need to get the country off a permanent "war footing" and back to its long-time reliance on collective international action against threats to international peace. In a sense, NATO has provided an umbrella for that cooperation, but without masking the essential American military commitment and leadership in the effort.

With the eventual departure of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who balked at guaranteeing immunity to U.S. forces against prosecution in the host country, the new president, Ashraf Ghani, has been more cooperative, clearing the way for the limited U.S. residual force after 2015.

But even as the fighting goes on in Afghanistan, the emergence of the self-styled Islamic State in expanses of Iraq and Syria has dictated new American military involvement in the region. In this regard, too, Obama has held to his "no boots on the ground" edict for U.S. combat forces, relying so far on extensive drone attacks on targets in territories held by the Islamic State.

For now, the immediate question is whether Afghanistan's army can capably handle the task of self-defense left to it. In Iraq, another national army diligently rebuilt under American tutelage crumbled in the face of the Islamic State onslaught. New reports of Taliban advances in the once-secured Afghan province of Helmand and recurring violence in Kabul do not bode well.

Obama's declared end to the NATO combat role in Afghanistan may advance his campaign to get this country out of its endless state of war. But the war goes on in Afghanistan nonetheless, requiring a residual American presence, and with it the certainty of more, if diminished, U.S. casualties.

Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books.