Have you heard of Operation Enduring Freedom? That's the war the United States has been fighting for over 10 years in Afghanistan. We're due to pull our troops out next year, but in the meantime, things have been heating up there. Here's why - and why it matters.
In a nutshell...
Three big events have happened over the past few days:
- Our new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, paid his first visit to Afghanistan, and it was rocky for both security and political reasons.
- Coinciding with Hagel's visit, there have been two "insider attacks" - also known as "green-on-blue" attacks - which happens when one or more people in official uniform (police, security, military) open fire on U.S. or coalition forces.
- Afghanistan's president accused the United States of working with the Taliban.
And all of this comes just as negotiations are underway to figure out how the U.S. will continue to provide support to the Afghan government after the war officially ends in 2014. Let's take a closer look.
How we got here
But first, let's start with a little background.
We got into Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. George W. Bush was only in the second year of his presidency when he sent military forces in to vanquish al Qaeda, the terrorist network responsible for the attacks.
That was only the beginning.
Last August, we hit a sad milestone: 2000 U.S. casualties since this war first started. Between U.S., U.K., and other forces, there have been over 3000 casualties.
But there's also a glimmer of hope: President Obama announced in February's State of the Union address that he would be sending home 34,000 troops home in the next year.
Next, let's meet the key players involved in what's going on in Afghanistan.
Chuck Hagel is a veteran and a former Republican senator. After a very contentious battle in the Senate, he was confirmed as the new Secretary of Defense.
Hagel just recently took his first trip to Afghanistan as SecDef, right after his confirmation. It was a rough trip. He was supposed to have a joint press conference with the Afghan president, but that was cancelled for security reasons. (They did meet - see the above photo - but they didn't hold a public event.) And the U.S. was supposed to hand over the last of their Afghan prisoners, but that, too, was cancelled.
Karzai has been the president of Afghanistan since 2004, two years after the United States first invaded the country. In the '90s, he initially recognized the Taliban as a government, but reversed that opinion after his father was gunned down by them in 1999. Ever since, he's been anti-Taliban.
"On the one hand, the Taliban are talking with the Americans, but on the other hand, they carry out a bombing in Kabul."
Is it really feasible that the U.S. is coordinating with the very group it sought to keep out of power in the first place?
The thing is, Karzai may just be asserting his power and sending the message to the U.S. that they can't push him around just because they are providing support, and to his people that he's boss, not the U.S. or NATO. That seems to be what he's communicating in this comment:
"We will tell them where we need them, and under which conditions. They must respect our laws. They must respect the national sovereignty of our country and must respect all our customs."
He may also be frustrated with diplomatic talks and feel that airing grievances in public gets him the attention he's looking for.
The Taliban held control of Afghanistan as an official government from 1996 to 2001. They are staunchly Islamist and were supporters of the terrorist organization known as al-Qaeda, the culprits of 9/11. (They also carried out the infamous attack on teenaged girls education advocate Malala Yousafzai last year.) Even though their government has officially crumbled, the Taliban continues to fight in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The Taliban is saying the recent violence they're responsible for is meant to show that they're still a force to be reckoned with when it comes to fighting the U.S. So, it doesn't really add up that they would be coordinating with their enemy.
Joseph Dunford (above right, with Hagel and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, James Cunningham) is the new leader of both U.S. and NATO (North American Treaty Organization) forces in Afghanistan.
He is tasked with leading the final American troops out of Afghanistan and handing over the keys (figuratively) to Afghan forces in the coming year or so. He responded to Karzai's accusation:
"We have fought too hard over the past 12 years, we have shed too much blood over the last 12 years, to ever think that violence or instability would be to our advantage."
Today: A police officer fires at U.S. and Afghan forces, killing two U.S. Troops and three Afghan soldiers.
Yesterday: Hamid Karzai accuses the U.S. and Taliban of joining together to keep the American presence in the country.
Saturday: A suicide bomb in Kabul kills nine, during Chuck Hagel's visit to the country.
Early March: Chuck Hagel is confirmed as Secretary of Defense.
February: President Barack Obama announces that 34,000 troops will be pulled from Afghanistan and the troops are readied.
Why it matters
About 66,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, and they'll start being pulled out over the course of the next two years. Big questions remain over how much the U.S. will continue to be involved there to provide support to Afghan forces, and how stable Afghanistan is. Will it again become a threatening hive of terrorist activity? Will the years of fighting there be considered to have been worth the cost, in both human lives and the billions of dollars spent?
Here are some things you can do to take action:
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