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New President Will Inherit The War In Afghanistan


It began as a punishing response to the 9/11 attacks. Fifteen years later, the war in Afghanistan has become this country's longest armed conflict. For many Americans, including the presidential candidates, it has also become the forgotten war. And yet, as NPR's David Welna reports, America's presence in Afghanistan is bound to continue no matter who becomes the next commander in chief.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: On an early autumn Sunday afternoon in 2001, the U.S. was still in shock from the 9/11 attacks. That's when President George W. Bush announced another nation on the other side of the world had just come under fire.


GEORGE W. BUSH: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaida terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

WELNA: Fewer than five dozen Americans died in the campaign to overthrow the Taliban regime and chase al-Qaida into the mountains. Then, exactly a year to the day after invading Afghanistan, President Bush asked Congress to authorize invading Iraq. This, according to military historian Andrew Bacevich, was a clear signal the Bush administration had moved on from the war in Afghanistan.

ANDREW BACEVICH: When we enjoyed the initial success of toppling the Taliban, they decided that the job was basically done.

WELNA: But in 2008, a Democratic senator from Illinois running for the White House reminded Americans that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden remained at large.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And that is why, as president, I will make the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war we have to win.

WELNA: Bacevich, whose latest book is "America's War For The Greater Middle East," says via Skype that as the anti-Iraq war candidate, Barack Obama had to show he was not soft on matters of national security.

BACEVICH: And one way to do that was to draw this contrast between the Iraq War, as the stupid war, with the Afghanistan War, which he described as the necessary war and which he vowed to win.

WELNA: As president, Obama surged troop levels in Afghanistan and drew them down in Iraq. On his orders, U.S. forces captured and killed bin Laden. And nearly two years ago, Obama declared U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan over. But getting out of Afghanistan, which depends heavily on international support, has been a lot harder than getting in.

Obama once planned to remove most of the nearly 10,000 U.S. troops left in Afghanistan by the end of this year. Then, last year, he said only about half of those troops would leave. This summer, calling that country's security situation precarious, Obama revised that figure once again.


OBAMA: Instead of going down to 5,500 troops by the end of this year, the United States will maintain approximately 8,400 troops in Afghanistan into next year, through the end of my administration.

WELNA: Meaning a war in which nearly 2,400 American service members have now died will continue into the next administration. But both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton seldom mention Afghanistan on the campaign trail.

KAEL WESTON: The longest war in American history has been easy to push aside.

WELNA: That's Kael Weston. He was posted in Afghanistan as a U.S. diplomat and writes about it in a new book, "Mirror Test."

WESTON: Our military has been told to go fight a very tough war and report back occasionally. And that has had consequences in an election year when other issues seem to be dominating the discussion.

WELNA: Nearly a year ago, Trump deplored the invasion of Afghanistan when asked on CNN if he believed American boots should stay on the ground there.


DONALD TRUMP: We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place. We had real brilliant thinkers that didn't know what the hell they were doing. And it's a mess. It's a mess.

WELNA: During a Republican debate on Fox News in March, Trump was asked about his terrible mistake comment. He claimed he'd meant Iraq not Afghanistan.


TRUMP: I think you have to stay in Afghanistan for a while because of the fact that you're right next to Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons.

WELNA: And shortly after Obama announced last year he'd be keeping thousands of troops in Afghanistan, Hillary Clinton was asked on CNN if she'd pledge those troops would be out by the end of her possible presidency.


HILLARY CLINTON: I can't predict where things will be in January of 2017. But I support the president's decision.

WELNA: The refusal by both candidates to pull the plug on Afghanistan reminds historian Bacevich of another war that would haunt three presidents - Vietnam.

BACEVICH: It was painful indeed for the United States to extricate itself from Vietnam. But no politician up to this point is willing to make that same call with regard to Afghanistan.

WELNA: Since, he adds, no president wants to be considered the one who lost Afghanistan. David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.