America's longest war


On Monday, U.S. forces will have been fighting in Afghanistan for 104 months - longer than any other war in American history, including Vietnam. Thirty-three Americans were killed there in May, making it the deadliest month this year and raising the total number of U.S. military deaths in the war to 1,000. Among the fallen was Army Lt. Col Thomas Belkofer of Perrysburg Township, who died in a suicide bomb attack on May 18.

After nearly 10 years, the loss of 1,000 American lives and the lives of many more Afghan civilians, and billions of dollars spent, it's reasonable to ask whether we are at all closer to achieving any of the goals that brought us to that far-off nation.

Operation Enduring Freedom was launched on Oct. 7, 2001, to root out al-Qaeda terrorists who were using Afghanistan as a launching ground for attacks against the United States such as occurred on Sept. 11. Today, few al-Qaeda reportedly remain in Afghanistan. Instead, they slipped into Pakistan.

Cross-border drone attacks have been effective at removing some terror leaders, but the possibility of destroying al-Qaeda in that manner is as remote as the tribal areas where they're hiding. Osama bin Laden is no closer to being caught today than he was immediately after 9/11.

The Taliban, al-Qaeda's fundamentalist hosts, were run from power but haven't been destroyed, either. Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week hosted a "peace jirga," a meeting of some 1,500 government and tribal leaders to discuss how to get the Taliban to the peace table. The Taliban felt confident enough to refuse to talk until all foreign troops have left the country.

Some attending the jirga even want to offer Taliban leaders positions in the government. A return to power by these religious zealots likely would undo gains made in opening up Afghan society and increasing opportunities for women.

A recent U.S. military review said progress finally is being made on training the Afghan police and army to take over for U.S. and coalition forces. But retention still is a huge problem, as are corruption and inefficiency. It is unclear, even if the goal is met to have 134,000 Afghan soldiers trained by October, that they will be capable of replacing coalition forces who are fighting insurgents.

President Karzai's government, far from being a unifying force and model of democracy, is notoriously corrupt and inefficient. His re-election in August was tainted by charges of ballot stuffing, bribery, and intimidation. There have been several attempts against his life, making it unclear whether he can survive an American withdrawal.

Troop withdrawals are supposed to begin by the middle of 2011, but the United States has made little progress at either eradicating terrorists or bringing peace, security, and progress to Afghanistan. There are many little successes, to be sure, but they often do not endure beyond the presence of coalition troops.

If nation-building in Afghanistan is to have any chance of success, it seems clear there will have to be a U.S. presence there for many more years. It is less clear that Americans will continue to support that commitment.