America’s longest war gets longer

President Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrive in the Roosevelt Room Thursday for Afghanistan announcement.
President Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter arrive in the Roosevelt Room Thursday for Afghanistan announcement. ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Barack Obama came into office in January 2009 promising to end America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He kept his word on Iraq, mostly, but announced Thursday he is delaying the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan past his last day in office in January 2017.

That means the next president, be it a Democrat or a Republican, will inherit what is already America’s longest war, 14 years and counting.

It’s true. America’s full-fledged involvement in Vietnam and Iraq it was about eight years each; in World War II it was nearly four years; in World War I, one year and in Korea, it was three years of engagement.

This development is yet another painful lesson that there’s no such thing as a guaranteed or successful “exit strategy” from a military conflict, as if another reminder was needed. Apparently it is.

There are voices, inside and outside Congress, calling for further U.S. military involvement in Syria’s bloody and complicated civil war.

While Mr. Obama is resisting a no-fly zone and ground troops seem out of the question, the United States did start airdropping weapons to Kurdish militias battling al Qaida this week.

We ought to be very, very wary of doing more — of getting anywhere close to a proxy war with Russia.

Russia is launching daily airstrikes to support Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, and Iran confirmed Wednesday that hundreds of its troops are fighting under that air cover. There are also reports that Cuba, which recently reestablished diplomatic ties with the United States, is also sending troops to the region in support of the Russian offensive.

During Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was right to call Syria “a quagmire in a quagmire.”

Afghanistan is looking more like one, too.

We didn’t want Mr. Obama to backslide on the withdrawal, but it’s understandable why he listened to U.S. commanders, given the situation on the ground.

Speaking from the Roosevelt Room, President Obama made his case for changing course: “While America's combat mission in Afghanistan may be over, our commitment to Afghanistan and and its people endures. As commander in chief, I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.”

Despite extensive and costly U.S. training efforts, the Afghan military still can’t defend its own country.

Mr. Obama noted as much saying that while Afghan forces are “taking the lead” and fighting “bravely and tenaciously,” those forces “are still not as strong as they need to be.” There is risk of deterioration, he said, that means vulnerability to terrorist forces.

That damning fact was made clear last month when the brutal Taliban took the major northern city of Kunduz, which it held until this week.

It’s hard to disagree with this reasoning, but what will our troops say?

According to the United Nations, the Taliban have a presence in more of the country than at any point since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Under the president’s old plan, by early 2017, there would have been only 1,000 U.S. troops, based at the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

Under the revised plan, the 9,800 troops in the country will stay through most of next year. That number will drop to about 5,500 at the end of 2016 or early 2017.

While training the Afghan military will be a core mission, U.S. forces will continue hunting al Qaida and Islamic State fighters and protecting civilians.

So far, almost 2,200 Americans have died in Afghanistan. Almost 18,000 U.S. troops have been wounded.

How many more before America’s longest war is finally and mercifully over?

This editorial was originally published by the Sacramento Bee, a McClatchy newspaper.