Oct. 7 marks 17 years of war in Afghanistan, making the war against terrorists in that nation the longest combat conflict in U.S. history. Compared to the war in Afghanistan, Vietnam comes the closest to length of combat — troops fighting an enemy and giving their lives for this nation — with 13 years of combat conflict. While technically the war in Korea is America’s longest war, U.S. troops have not been officially in combat with North Korean troops since an armistice was signed in 1953. U.S. troops have, however, been in combat in Afghanistan since they first arrived under Operation Enduring Freedom to destroy al-Qaida’s ability to plan and execute terrorist attacks on American soil. Al-Qaida was supported by the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group that controlled Afghanistan at the time and sheltered the terrorists and their leader, Osama bin Laden. The Taliban continues to fight to this day against the democratically-elected Afghanistan government and NATO troops stationed there.
In 2003, NATO took command of the United Nations-mandated International Security Assistance Force Mission, which included 51 NATO and partner nations fighting alongside the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, according to the State Department website.
NATO formally ended its International Security Assistance Force combat mission in Afghanistan on Dec. 31, 2014, and handed it over to Afghan forces. On Jan. 1, 2015, the NATO-led mission “Resolute Support” began, with the separate mission to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces.
According to a May 2017 report to Congress by the Congressional Research Service, troops in Afghanistan over time have had three basic missions: Counterterrorism, combat, in some circumstances, and training Afghans..
The first mission, counterterrorism, primarily revolves around U.S. efforts to kill al-Qaida terrorists and destroy their networks.
The second mission involved direct combat against Taliban insurgents attempting to reassert their control over Afghanistan. As noted, this mission ended for U.S. and NATO forces in December 2014. As part of Resolute Support, U.S. advisors are not supposed to participate in direct combat unless it is in self-defense, but under certain circumstances, U.S. air support may be provided to Afghan security forces.
The third mission, which began early in the campaign and is the focus of the Resolute Support Mission today, primarily involves working with allies to train and advise the Afghan military and police and support the development of Afghan government agencies, such as the Ministry of Defense.
At the NATO Summit in Warsaw in 2016, leaders from nations participating in Resolute Support decided to sustain the mission beyond 2016, according to the Resolute Support website. The mission operates with one central hub in Kabul/Bagram, with four spokes located in Mazar-e Sharif, Herat, Kandahar and Laghman.
On July 12, 2018, leaders from nations contributing troops to the NATO-led Resolute Support mission met at the NATO summit held in Brussels and reaffirmed their commitment to Afghanistan’s lasting security, as stated on the Resolute Support website.
A joint statement was issued at the end of the meeting, reaffirming the shared commitment to Afghanistan’s long-term security and stability and welcoming the progress made by the Afghan security forces and institutions.
The statement announced a commitment to sustain the non-combat Resolute Support mission until conditions indicate a change in the mission is appropriate; extended financial sustainment of the Afghan forces through 2024; and to make further progress on developing a political and practical partnership with Afghanistan. For its part, Afghanistan committed to continue its efforts towards reform, including by further strengthening its security forces and institutions, combatting corruption and organizing and holding credible, free, fair and inclusive parliamentary and presidential elections in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
The vote for the lower house of parliament is scheduled for Oct. 20, though it remains unclear if voting will take place in areas held by the Taliban, according to The Associated Press.
The 41-nation, NATO-led Resolute Support mission currently consists of around 16,000 troops, approximately half of which are from the U.S., according to Resolute Support spokesman U.S. Navy Cmdr. Grant Neeley. In total, the U.S. contributes approximately 14,000 troops to both the Resolute Support and U.S. Forces–Afghanistan missions. In addition, there are approximately 800 Department of Defense civilians in Afghanistan.
The challenge U.S. troops currently face is the threat to nations from an offshoot of the Islamic State operating in Afghanistan and al-Qaida, who seek to establish safe-havens to plot, direct, resource, conduct and inspire attacks around the world.
“The future for Afghanistan is a country devoid of terrorist safe-havens from which ISIS-K (Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham-Khorasan) and al-Qaida can threaten the U.S. and 40 other Resolute Support nations, which is why the U.S. and international troops are here under a conditions-based strategy,” Neeley said in an email interview from Afghanistan.
“U.S. and international troops operating under a conditions-based approach conduct counter-terrorism operations and train, advise and assist Afghan forces as they build and maintain enduring, independent and sustainable capabilities against our common enemies and these shared threats.”
All U.S. and international troops operate in Afghanistan based on conditions set by the Afghanistan government in a Status of Forces Agreement, according to the Resolute Support website. The current agreement was signed in Kabul on Sept. 30, 2014, and ratified by the Afghan Parliament on Nov. 27, 2014.
Fort Hood’s 504th Military Intelligence Brigade headquarters returned from Afghanistan at the end of September.
Currently, major deployed U.S. units from all branches of service include elements of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault); elements of the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade; elements of the 101st Airborne Division Artillery; elements of the 101st Sustainment Brigade; 2-44 Air Defense Artillery; 455th Air Expeditionary Wing; 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Afghanistan; 438th Air Expeditionary Wing; 451st Air Expeditionary Group; 738th Air Expeditionary Group; elements of the 40th Infantry Division; 20th Engineers; 163rd Military Intelligence Battalion; 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade; elements of the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division; elements of the 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division and the 8th Marine Regiment.