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America's non-committal relationship with Afghanistan

"A decade of war is now ending," the president announced in his inaugural address Monday, even as soldiers continue to prepare for nine-month deployments to destinations including Uruzgan and Kandahar.

The White House has long talked in the abstract about bringing a ‘responsible' end to the war President Obama once called the fight ‘we have to win.'  What has been less clear is what the U.S. government has in mind regarding the very critical details concerning its commitment to Afghanistan post-2014.  Among the central questions: how many U.S. troops will remain on in Afghanistan, and what size Afghan force will the U.S. push for and fund?

"I can't, sitting here, tell you whether I believe that this administration is actually committed to trying to make the Afghan Army as good as it can be in the next two years or whether we're simply trying to look for a decent interval while we dump that," former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann recently said at the Brookings Institution.

"The fact is we have a policy. What we are not clear about is whether we're serious about that policy and what the policy requires," Neumann said.  "We need a discussion that is more articulated about missions, both military missions and others, and one can take different positions on whether you should advise in the field or not, or whether you're going to provide air support and some other key things, at least for a limited period while the Afghans finish development of those."

The American people, for their part, seem to have amnesia when it comes to recent conflicts. Iraq is a faint though bloody memory, and only for a fighting sliver of our country is Afghanistan a war that is still being fought.

Even as the battle in Afghanistan begins its slow wind down, America and its leaders still struggle to engage with it in a serious way.

That is why it is not terribly surprising to see Zero Dark Thirty disturb so many. It was not a glorification of torture, or a justification of its horrors and the consequences of it.  Instead the film offered a well-lit snapshot of a fight and a war that few in this country have acknowledged more than momentarily, let alone debated. The film reminds viewers of battles most have not wanted to see or speak of beyond perfunctory praise for America's troops fighting and dying in places their countrymen will never know.

When war does not intrude on Americans' daily life, even in news headlines, it is easy to understand why colliding with the brutality of its reality is shocking.  America has forcefully avoided engaging with a war fought by less than one percent of its population, and its leaders have shrunk at explaining either the stakes or the mission at hand in Afghanistan. The closest that many have come to reading about the Afghanistan war of late is probably coverage of the scandal surrounding former Gen. David Petraeus' resignation.

With Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington earlier this month comes another step on the path to closing out this war with which Americans long ago grew tired. Multiple U.S. troop deployments, deadly ‘green on blue' attacks on American soldiers, and Afghan government corruption account for much of the exhaustion.  But a lack of leadership from Washington is also worth noting. 

In his book tour interviews former Gen. Stanley McChrystal nearly pleaded with the American public to care about its longest-ever war.  He also argued that not all is lost.

"I believe Afghanistan can be stable," McChrystal said on CBS. "I think they must take responsibility for their security, the vast lion's share, but I think the strategic partnership that President Obama offered to President Karzai is critical. Not just physically. It's not how many troops and how much money, it's the idea in the minds of Afghans that they have a reliable partner."

And as former Sen. Chuck Hagel seeks to become Defense Secretary Hagel the details and durability of that partnership is on the minds of others who have served in Afghanistan on the diplomatic side.

"We have the structures in place, both bilaterally, through our strategic partnership agreement that carries on to 2024, and internationally, through the Chicago agreements to fund Afghan security forces into the out years, as well as the Tokyo ministerial from July that pledged the international community to something like $16 billion in economic support on terms of conditionality, again over the next three to four years. So the architecture is there," said former Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker last month.  "What is critical is American will -- because again, let me tell you something learned through hard experience: If we don't lead, others are going to wander away too, and those pledges will vanish like smoke. Absolutely guarantee it."

Crocker argued for an American wallet that remains open to support Afghan forces and a fledgling civil society.

"We will wind up paying about $2.5 billion a year to support -- as our share of support for Afghan security forces totaling 230,000. That sounds like a lot of money until you consider that we're paying about $110 billion a year now. So this is pretty cheap insurance," Crocker said. "And I have argued and will argue, that support for Afghan women, for civil society, for social and economic development is also pretty cheap insurance to prevent a spirit of hopelessness from taking hold among the general population that makes it easy for the Taliban."

Unfortunately, a spirit of hopelessness already has taken hold among the American public.  

Whether the country's leaders decide to challenge that despair and dig into the details of and the rationale behind America's involvement in Afghanistan after next year remains an unanswered question. But the past few years leave little reason to think that Washington will soon open up and start talking about the war and its goals.  And an exhausted American public is unlikely to push them to do so.

For America the war may be over, but men and women in uniform continue to fight it.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images

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