With New Security Agreement, U.S. Mission In Afghanistan Continues

Oct 1, 2014
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The new security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan means nearly 10,000 American troops will stay in Afghanistan. What the U.S. troops will do during the next two years has mostly been worked out. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman provides a more detailed at the new mission.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Back in May, months after the security agreement was worked out, President Obama visited the troops in Afghanistan. He told them U.S. troops would soon be out of harm's way.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And by the end of this year, the transition will be complete, and Afghans will take full responsibility for their security and our combat mission will be over. America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.

BOWMAN: Well, not exactly.

O'HANLON: We're not going to be doing combat except when we might.

BOWMAN: Michael O'Hanlon is a defense analyst who has made numerous trips to Afghanistan.

O'HANLON: Part of that's semantics. We're all familiar with the use of semantics in these sorts of things.

BOWMAN: That's because even though the U.S. combat mission is officially over, the Afghan war will continue. And whether it's called combat or not, American troops will be in the middle of it. Most U.S. troops will train and advise Afghan forces on everything from bomb disposal and logistics to aircraft maintenance. They'll work out of at least nine bases across Afghanistan.

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: They will almost always be on Afghan facilities in that mission.

BOWMAN: And that's the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, James Cunningham, who acknowledges the risks.

CUNNINGHAM: We're all in danger being here. It's a conflict zone. But we're all committed to getting the mission done wherever we are and whether we're civilian or military.

BOWMAN: Even U.S. military personnel assigned to the training mission will be allowed to patrol outside their bases under the agreement, so they could find themselves in firefights with Taliban forces who are on the move throughout the country. Just today, suicide bombers in Kabul killed at least seven Afghan soldiers and wounded 20 others.

Besides the training mission, a smaller number of American soldiers will focus on counterterrorism. They'll work with Afghan forces going after the remnants of al-Qaida and its affiliates. The security agreement says some of those troops could work at the tactical level, meaning they could go out on operations.

JAMES DUBIK: The counterterror guys incur the greatest risk.

BOWMAN: Retired Lieutenant General James Dubik served as one of the top U.S. trainers in Iraq.

DUBIK: They will be conducting direct operations. These direct strike operations are combat missions.

BOWMAN: And that, says Michael O'Hanlon, means more casualties next year, especially in eastern Afghanistan, the focus of future counterterror operations.

O'HANLON: No matter what we're told about the combat mission ending, we better still expect a dozen or two fatalities in our troops in Afghanistan next year and probably several dozen wounded.

BOWMAN: Still, despite the danger, officials say those thousands of U.S. forces in Afghanistan can prevent a repeat of the failures in Iraq. All U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011. This summer, the Iraqi army crumbled, opening the door to forces with the group that calls itself the Islamic State - again, General Dubik.

DUBIK: We have to learn from our mistakes in Iraq where we focused too narrowly on the military dimension of security and not the governance dimension of security.

BOWMAN: Now a new Iraqi government is attempting to fix what led to the military's collapse and rebuild those army units. Hundreds of U.S. military advisers are returning to help. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.