At a flag-lowering ceremony in Kabul on Monday, U.S. and NATO military commanders publicly declared that combat operations in Afghanistan are coming to a close.
While major media outlets quickly picked up and parroted this message, one problem remains: the U.S.-led war is not, in fact, ending.
Announcing the formal closure of joint U.S. and NATO headquarters for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), General John Campbell, U.S. Army General and commander of ISAF, claimed on Monday that the joint command "will be subsumed into a coalition that is soon downsizing to about 3,000 personnel." Campbell added, “You’ve done your job well so well that you’ve worked yourself out of a job."
"ISAF is transitioning to the NATO-led Resolute Support (RS) mission which will focus on training, advising and assisting Afghan Security Institutions and ANSF at the ministerial, institutional, and operational levels," reads a statement from ISAF about Monday's ceremony. "The RS mission begins January 1st, 2015."
The public display, however, comes as the Obama administration quietly moves to continue, and in some aspects expand, the war.
In November, President Obama signed a secret order authorizing a more expansive military mission in Afghanistan through 2015, the New York Times revealed late last month. The measure green-lights U.S. deployment of ground troops for military operations targeting the Taliban and other armed groups, as well as use of jets, bombers, and drones.
Furthermore, outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Saturday that, into 2015, the United States will keep up to 1,000 more U.S. soldiers than the numbers previously outline in Obama's May pledge to cut troop levels. This would bring the total number of U.S. troops to as many as 10,800 into next year, and the total number of foreign troops to 13,000, when the thousands of remaining NATO soldiers are taken into account. Troops that remain will engage in "combat enabler" roles, Hagel stated.
And then there is the Bilateral Security Agreement between the U.S. and Afghan governments, which was signed in September and locks in at least another decade of U.S. troops in the country, as well as training, funding, and arming of the Afghan military. The agreement also secures immunity for U.S. service members under Afghan law—a measure that is highly controversial in a country that has suffered massacres of civilians.
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Furthermore, in late November, U.S.-backed Afghan president Ashraf Ghani removed the ban on unpopular night raids by special forces. Special Forces units from the Afghan Army are already preparing to resume the raids, in some cases with the participation of U.S. Special Operations.
People in Afghanistan, who live with the impacts of these policies, may shudder at the claim that ISAF "did its job well."
A report released in July by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan notes that Afghan civilian deaths and wounds as a result of the fighting have steadily risen since 2012 and are overall higher than they were in 2009. Furthermore, a report released in November by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs finds that 7,965 civilians were killed and wounded by conflict between January and September 2014—22 percent of them children. During this time period, approximately 105,800 people were forced to flee their homes.
As recently as Saturday, ISAF troops killed two civilians in Southern Kandahar when they opened fire into their car, according to journalist Bashir Ahmad Naadem.
Critics charge that the real outcome of the U.S.-led war is death, social destabilization, poverty, and political dependency and corruption.
"In the past thirteen years, the U.S. and its allies have wasted tens of billions of dollars and turned this country into the center of global surveillance and mafia gangs and left it poor, corrupt, insecure, hungry, and crippled with tribal, linguistic, and sectarian divisions," declared the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan in a statement released on the 13th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion.
"Our people, tired of war, have been burning in the fire of oppression and plunder set by the occupiers and their stooges."