- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The long-term partnership that President Obama signed with the Afghan government commits the U.S. to a role in the troubled nation for at least a dozen more years, leaving critics fuming over the uncertain costs of a conflict that already has stretched for a decade.

Details of the agreement are still vague, as is the eventual cost of the mission, which could be as much as $4 billion annually.

The agreement was reached even as Afghanistan remains tumultuous, with U.S.-led efforts to make peace with the Taliban spawning turmoil within the militant group’s own ranks.

Bombings Wednesday marked the start of the Taliban’s spring offensive — the annual beginning of renewed attacks. Some of the movement’s field commanders are angry at their leadership for negotiating.

Anthony Cordesman, a leading military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the $4 billion estimate is only a tentative figure and that the U.S. wants to provide only half of that. The Afghans would contribute $1 billion, and other countries would provide the remaining $1 billion.

“There are no firm numbers right now,” Mr. Cordesman said. “You’re talking about the ability to plan for the security situation in 2015.”

But the decision to commit the U.S. to at least another 12 years of involvement is sitting poorly with those on Mr. Obama’s political left, who question how it jibes with his pledge during the 2008 presidential campaign to end the war.

“America has been lulled to sleep by the mind-boggling elongation of a war 7,000 miles away,” said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who ran for president twice on a platform of opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The plain fact is we are not exiting Afghanistan, despite the appearances which the White House is trying to create. We are staying. Have we learned nothing from 10 years of quagmire?”

The agreement got a better reception from those on the right. Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said it signaled a transition but not an abandonment of Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama signed the deal on his surprise nighttime visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday and Wednesday, outlining a mission that calls for NATO troops to be withdrawn as planned in 2014, though the U.S. will be allowed to leave military forces in the country only to train Afghan troops — which could cost up to $4 billion a year — or to pursue al Qaeda terrorists.

Administration officials and national security sources said Mr. Obama and NATO allies will hammer out more details during a summit in Chicago this month, and want to have an international reconstruction and economic aid plan ready this fall.

Mr. Cordesman said continued U.S. involvement is critical because the Afghan economy needs outside support and would collapse if the U.S. pulled out abruptly. American spending on its commitment in Afghanistan is seven times the country’s own national budget.

“You can’t cut down that much money quickly without creating a nightmare of an economic impact — the country has a very limited ability to raise revenue,” he said. “The effect would be extremely serious. It would put more pressure on Pakistan and Iran, and they would react and it wouldn’t be by admitting more Afghan refugees.”

The president’s trip also could reassure Afghans that the U.S. would not repeat history by turning its attention elsewhere as it did after secretly helping the mujahedeen defeat Russia in the late 1980s.

The chaos that resulted from that led to the Taliban’s emergence and eventual rule, which ended only after a U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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