December 30, 2013

As the White House assesses the year ahead, the potential rough patches as the midterm elections approach seem clear — mainly they involve implementation of the Affordable Care Act and managing an anemic economic recovery. But what if the war in Afghanistan also becomes an issue?

Though the war has been nearly invisible from the political scene for years, there are some early signs that the White House’s push for another 10 years (at least) in Afghanistan —already the nation’s longest war — could make some waves in Washington.

U.S. troops hold gifts from the commander of NATO at a base in Laghman province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013. The commander of NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan spent Christmas Eve visiting U.S. troops at bases across the mountainous region to bring them holiday greetings and gifts for a few lucky soldiers. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
U.S. troops hold gifts from the commander of NATO at a base in Laghman province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan on Christmas Eve. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

The administration is pushing for a new security deal with the Afghan government that would allow U.S. troops to stay there until “2024 and beyond.” According to details obtained by NBC News in November, Afghan officials want 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops to stay, whereas U.S. officials are looking at 7,000 to 8,000 troops. They would not be barred from combat operations against any group deemed an al-Qaeda “affiliate.”

By any definition, this is 10 more years of war, no matter what the White House says. If President Obama proposed sending 8,000 troops to Syria, with them located in a network of U.S. military bases and carrying out combat operations, any rational person would rightly see this as launching a war. The same definition is true of the next decade in Afghanistan, should the security pact be finalized.

The White House seems only concerned with getting the Afghan government to agree to the pact, but a growing number of people in Congress want to make this an issue back home, too. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and 11 of his colleagues tried to include an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act asking Obama to consult Congress before agreeing to another 10 years of war. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid didn’t allow a vote, but the co-sponsors were notable: They included both Democrats (including at least one, Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, facing a tough reelection battle this fall) and Republicans.

A similar measure passed the House in June by a remarkable, bipartisan 305-121 vote. And the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which helped steer that measure through, said in November that the proposed Afghan security agreement is “outrageous.”

The fundamentals of this debate for the White House are terrible. Polls show an extremely unpopular war with the public — the number of people who think the war wasn’t worth it have reached all-time highs, with 67 percent agreeing with that assessment in one recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Obama doesn’t have a good record to lean on, either. During seven years under President George W. Bush, 630 Americans were killed in Afghanistan. Under Obama, 1,671 troops have been killed, and the 127 killed this year — even as the war was supposedly winding down — are more than any other year but one under President Bush.

And goals of the war remain unclear. Jay Carney said in 2012, “The reason why U.S. troops are in Afghanistan in the first place is to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al-Qaeda.” But when I asked the Defense Department about the last time U.S. forces killed an al-Qaeda affiliate, it was 10 months prior. And The Post reported this weekend that any gains made by the United States will be lost quickly after the drawdown.

So: a hugely unpopular war. Continued troop deaths. A supposedly antiwar president pushing another decade of U.S. combat operations on increasingly restive members of Congress, including many in his own party.

Granted, the media have never given the war too much attention, and most Republicans — trapped between an aversion to seeming dovish and a public that dislikes the war — have never been eager to make an issue of it. But these factors converging in 2014 could finally make voters focus their attention on why the heck U.S. troops are still dying in Afghanistan.